One of the bills would put more teeth into family readiness requirements for military commanders by making it part of the command climate assessment, said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who introduced the six bills in May.
“These bills viewed as a whole address some of the real gaps in caring for our military families,” Blumenthal said in an interview. The gaps “threaten national security,” he said. “In today’s society, we can’t expect to attract and retain our very best when we ignore the needs of children and spouses. …
“The wonder of this issue is why these steps haven’t been taken before. They’re long overdue,” he said.
While each is s stand-alone measure, senators are working to get measures included in the national defense bill. The six bills each have varying co-sponsors, all Democrats, but Blumenthal said he is “sensing a lot of bipartisan support.”
Another bill has provisions to make child care more affordable and accessible. For example, it would help reduce child care costs for certain lower-ranking military families. It would remove the requirement to include the Basic Allowance for Housing in calculating the total family income to determine a family’s fees for military child care. That bill is co-sponsored by Blumenthal with Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.
Not all commanders get training on the services and programs available to military families, nor are they evaluated on their ability to support families, the senators noted.
The “Command Accountability for Military Family Readiness Act” would require the service secretaries to identify which commanders will be responsible for supporting military family readiness. These commanders will be subject to a command climate assessment that takes those efforts into account. These commanders would receive comprehensive training and guidance to help them direct families to resources and information available locally, through their branch of service, and through DoD.
Sign up for the Pay and Benefits Report
Stay up-to-date on changing military benefits and pay
By giving us your email, you are opting in to the Early Bird Brief.
At each of those units or installations, officials would include surveys of spouses of the service members in their command climate assessment.
“Making family readiness an explicit part of evaluating leadership can definitely have an effect, but it depends on how effectively it’s actually implemented,” Blumenthal said.
Command climate assessments would consider how effective leaders are at welcoming new families and connecting them to resources; supporting families having difficulty with military family housing; informing spouses of employment opportunities; supporting families seeking child care; supporting families during deployment and training exercises; supporting spouses during pregnancy and after childbirth, particularly when the active duty member is away for deployment or training at the time of birth; supporting families preparing for transition to civilian life; supporting families seeking access to health care and mental health resources; and supporting families experiencing food insecurity and seeking nutrition assistance programs.
For years, defense and service officials have struggled to get the word out to the mobile, constantly changing population of military spouses about the plethora of resources available to them to address specific needs.
The Army changed the name and structure of its family readiness groups last fall, to be led by the commander. The goal of the soldier and family readiness groups is for the commander to be able to communicate with them and connect them to services and support that’s available, officials said.
The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
“These bills demonstrate Congress’ willingness to listen to the stories that military families share through our annual Military Lifestyle Survey, to take concerns like child care and quality of life issues seriously… and to act in a way that sets the conditions for military families to thrive,” said Kathy Roth-Douquet, CEO and co-founder of Blue Star Families, in a statement.
The proposal to improve military child care accessibility and affordability would exclude BAH from total family income for the purpose of child care fee calculations for those in grades E-1 through E-5, warrant officer grades W-1 and W-2; and officer grade O-1 and O-2. Since fees are based on total family income, it would generally reduce the cost of child care.
It would also:
*require child development centers to give a discount of 15 percent in the fee for each child after the first child in the family. Families have reported that policies for family discounts for multiple children are inconsistent from installation to installation.
* require each branch of service to carry out a fee assistance program for child care at civilian providers off the installation. Care outside the installation is often more expensive than child care on base, which is subsidized by taxpayer dollars. The fee assistance is designed to defray the costs for the service member. The programs would be modeled after the Army’s fee assistance program. While the services have long had these fee assistance programs, the Navy and Marine Corps had waiting lists for the program because of limited funding, even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
*require installation commanders to have liberal policies regarding hardship waivers of child care fees, while ensuring fees meet the operating expenses of the child development centers.
*require each service to submit a report naming the five installations with the biggest unmet need for child care, including whether civilian employees at CDCs have pay and benefits that are competitive with other civilian employees on the installation, and with the civilian labor pool near the installation.
*require commanders of each military medical treatment facility to enter into agreements to provide hourly child care for service members and spouses attending an appointment. The agreements would be with entities such as nonprofit organizations or private sector child development centers.
This proposal would require DoD and all the services to review the medical waiver process to prevent undue discrimination against military dependents and civilians with prior mental health conditions, who have shown demonstrable improvement. This bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.
Tricare coverage for doula support for pregnant beneficiaries
This proposal would require Tricare to cover doula support, and other resources for prenatal and postnatal communication and education, at no cost to the beneficiary. The senators noted that doula support, which includes continuous non-clinical one-to-one emotional, physical and informational support around the time of birth as well as during pregnancy and postpartum, could be beneficial to service members and spouses because of deployments, frequent moves and other mission requirements that can lead to isolation during pregnancy and birth.
Lawmakers would also require a survey of how many service members of spouses give birth while their spouse or birthing partner is unable to be present because of mission requirements; how many single members give birth alone; and how many service members and spouses use doula support, or are interested in using it.
Lawmakers also ask for data on births at military medical treatment facilities and civilian hospitals under Tricare.
The bill is co-sponsored by Gillibrand.
Prenatal and postpartum mental health
This proposal would ask for a Government Accountability Office report on prenatal and postpartum mental health conditions among military members and dependents. The bill is co-sponsored by Kaine.
More help for employed spouses who are PCSing
In some cases, military spouses are forced to break an employment contract when they move with their service member in a permanent change of station. This would allow spouses to apply for reimbursement of any fine imposed in connection with breaking the contract. It would be paid through the My Career Advancement Account Program (MyCAA), for a maximum of $4,000, or whatever was in the spouse’s MyCAA account at the time of reimbursement.
The bill is co-sponsored by Kaine.
About Karen Jowers
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book “A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families.” She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.