Defense officials say they are not yet prepared to announce just when same-sex couples will get the housing, health, compensation and support benefits that will grant them equal benefits. (Brynn Anderson / AP)
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A 5-4 Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage has handed the military a new challenge: updating hundreds of benefits and programs to recognize same-sex couples while also figuring out how to pay what could be billions in extra costs.
The Defense Department has been preparing for this expansion since Congress voted in 2010 to repeal the Clinton-era “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that allowed gays to serve in the military only if they remained closeted.
Defense officials say they are ready and willing to move forward, but are not yet prepared to announce just when same-sex couples will get the housing, health, compensation and support benefits that will grant them equal benefits.
Allyson Robinson, an Army veteran and executive director of Outserve/SLDN, a group that has helped thousands of gay service members, said providing full military and veterans benefits to same-sex couples is the logical next step after DoD dropped its ban on open service by gays in 2011.
The law, she said, is clear.
“This is now an implementation issue,” she said.
What this all means for you:
Q. What did the court ruling actually do?
A. The 5-4 ruling came in a suit on behalf of a New York woman, Edith Windsor, who was denied an estate tax exemption provided to surviving spouses after the 2009 death of her same-sex spouse, Thea Spyer, because the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 defined marriage as only between a man and a woman.
“Under DOMA, same-sex married couples have their lives burdened, by reason of government decree, in visible and public ways. The principal purpose is to impose inequality, not for other reasons like governmental efficiency,” the court’s majority opinion stated.
The ruling strikes down DOMA’s definition of marriage as unconstitutional, leaving state laws to determine what constitutes a marriage within their borders and what marriages from outside the state are recognized.
Q. When will the changes take effect?
A. Unclear, but defense officials intend to move quickly. Shortly after the ruling was announced, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said DoD will “move very swiftly, expeditiously. ... We are now, of course, exploring all the pieces, but make no mistake: It will be a decision implemented in every way, as it should be.”
Q. Will the transition be complicated?
A. It could be. Complex questions are in play; thousands of laws and policies may need to be changed.
John Mahoney, a Washington, D.C., attorney specializing in government personnel issues, said it is clear what the government needs to do — but not how to get there. “What needs to be worked out is how two soldiers married in New York, where same-sex marriage is legal, will be treated if they are in a Southern state where it is illegal. We expect that state to recognize a legal marriage, but this could be complicated.”
Hagel acknowledged that complexity. When asked if he could guarantee that same-sex military couples assigned in states where gay marriage is not legal would receive the same benefits as same-sex couples assigned to states where they can get married, he said he didn’t know, and added that this is one of the questions under review by Pentagon lawyers.
Lawmakers are also tackling that issue. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., is sponsoring a bill that would specifically redefine marriage in federal law for military and veterans’ benefits to include legally married same-sex couples.
The legislation, S 373, may be useful to the Pentagon if defense officials discover that changes in law are required to fully implement equal benefits. A companion bill in the House is sponsored by Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
Q. How many same-sex married couples are in the military?
A. Unknown. DoD estimates there are 18,000, but has no idea how many of them are legally married, or may now seek to legally marry in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling.
Q. Will an influx of spouses squeeze access to any benefits?
A. Possibly in a few cases, although such impact likely would be minor.
For example, the My Career Advancement Accounts, or MyCAA, program provides a defined pot of money each year for job training and education for spouses. Once that money is spoken for, the program takes no more applicants until the next year.
Q. When will same-sex spouses be eligible for military ID cards?
A. Even before the Supreme Court ruling, DoD already had decided to start issuing IDs cards to legal spouses and domestic partners starting on Sept. 1. An ID card is the gateway to dozens of fringe benefits for spouses; for example, it grants access to military installations and all the on-base community and family support programs, which a same sex-spouse now cannot access without an escort.
Q. How will the policy on housing allowance be adjusted?
A. A service member receiving basic allowance for housing to live off base will be eligible to receive this tax-free allowance at the higher with-dependents rate if they are legally married to someone of the same sex. But if that couple has children, the service member may already be receiving the with dependents rate.
On average, the difference between married and single housing allowance rates is about $206 a month for officers in paygrades O-5 and below and $248 a month for enlisted members.
Q. Will same-sex couples be eligible for military family housing?
A. Yes. But one question to be resolved involves housing assignments to privatized quarters in states where same-sex marriage is not recognized and where the land on which the privatized housing sits was conveyed by DoD to the management company — which means the housing technically is not on federal property. Defense policy clearly governs housing assignments, but this issue will require further study.
Q. Will the military make any special accommodations in housing assignments?
A. The housing issue could be one of the the biggest cultural changes for military families, as some may not want to live beside gay couples for religious or personal reasons. But they are unlikely to have a choice. The military already has strict rules about not tolerating discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and is expected to do the same for family housing.
The services do not move or assign people based on religion or race and are unlikely to make an exception for sexual orientation.
Q. What does this change mean for health care for same-sex spouses?
A. The military health care system is one of the lowest-cost health plans in the nation for beneficiaries, so one of the biggest financial gains for same-sex couples will be coverage for spouses, both through on-base care and access to Tricare. Actual savings will depend on what type of health coverage, if any, the spouse currently has.
On average, people with employer-provided health insurance policies in the private sector will pay $2,385 in premiums and $2,429 in out-of-pocket costs in 2013, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.
An active-duty spouse using Tricare Prime generally pays no premiums, no co-payments for office visits and no deductibles for health care. They may pay nominal fees for incidentals and drug co-payments at retail pharmacies.
Tricare Standard has no premiums and charges minimal annual deductibles. It charges a 20 percent copay for office visits and emergency care, and co-payments when using retail pharmacies.
Q. Will same-sex couples get better travel benefits?
A. Yes. On permanent change-of-station moves, same-sex spouses would receive travel and transportation allowances, and the couple would be able to ship more household goods at government expense.
Q. What about command-sponsored overseas assignments?
A. Same-sex spouses will be able to join their service members on command-sponsored overseas assignments. Previously, a member married to someone of the same sex would be sent on an unaccompanied tour, sometimes shorter than an accompanied tour in that area.
Stephen Peters, president of the American Military Partner Association, cited command sponsorship as one of the three biggest new benefits for same-sex couples, along with health care and housing allowances.
Q. Will same-sex spouses be able to shop in commissaries and exchanges?
A. Yes. Shopping privileges in on-base stores will become available, as well as use of recreation facilities; family support centers, which offer a variety of activities, relocation assistance, employment services and counseling; and legal aid.
Q. What education benefits will same-sex spouses qualify for?
A. They will be eligible for transferred Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits if the service member qualifies to share benefits, and also will be eligible for military spouse tuition assistance designed to help spouses acquire “portable” job skills.
The tuition assistance program, Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts, or MyCAA, can provide up to $4,000, limited to $2,000 a year, for some training. Junior officers and junior enlisted members are eligible.
Q. Will same-sex spouses be allowed to be listed as official next-of-kin?
A. Yes. They will be the ones to receive official notification of casualty to their military spouse. In addition, if a service member is hospitalized, a same-sex spouse will receive travel and transportation allowances to join the member.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a disabled Iraq War veteran, said the the Supreme Court decision made her think about what it means to be a military couple.
“While I was recovering at Walter Reed after being shot down in Iraq, my husband Bryan was at my bedside every day,” she said, referring to her recovery in 2004 after a rocket-propelled grenade struck her helicopter. “I support the freedom to marry because everyone deserves the same level of access, support and love.”
If a member dies on active duty, the spouse also will receive allowances to attend the burial and memorial services.
Same-sex spouses will be eligible to serve as designated caretakers of severely wounded troops or veterans, under programs that provide training, benefits and even pay under some circumstances.
Q. What death benefits will same-sex spouses qualify for?
A. They’ll be eligible for a wide range of benefits, including receiving their service members’ final paychecks and personal belongings and being the one who decides how to dispose of remains. If a service member is eligible for burial in a veterans cemetery, a same-sex spouse could also be buried there.
The military’s $100,000 “death gratuity” for active-duty deaths, as well as Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance payouts of up to $400,000, already are available to same-sex spouses. Service members may designate any individual to receive those payments.
For same-sex retiree couples, spouses will be eligible to participate in the voluntary Survivor Benefit Plan, in which retirees pay monthly premiums in return for the government paying annual annuities to their designated survivors after the retiree dies.
Q. How will dual-service same-sex couples be affected?
A. They will be covered by the same policies as other dual-service couples. This includes exemptions from serving simultaneously in hostile fire areas or combat zones, and consideration in reassignments to try and station both members in the same location.
Q. How much will all this cost DoD?
A. Defense officials do not know how much it will cost to provide full benefits to same-sex spouses, but any increase would create problems at a time when growth in military spending has slowed and the threat of more across-the-board budget cuts remains.
However, just extending military health care coverage to 18,000 new same-sex spouses would cost $63 million a year, using the Pentagon’s estimate that the military’s annual cost to provide health care averages about $3,500 per person. And that does not include the cost of covering an untold number of same-sex spouses of military retirees, who will also be eligible for military health care.
There would be added costs from paying higher housing allowances to same-sex couples and providing travel allowances during duty-station moves, and from increased use of fringe benefits because of more people using community and family support facilities.
Staff writers Karen Jowers and Patricia Kime contributed to this story.