IT CANNOT BE said that the U.S. military mistreats the families of service members who die on active duty. Every year survivors receive 55 percent of what their spouse would have earned if they were retired, plus other benefits, including as much as $250,000 -- if, that is, they have not followed bad advice and opted out of the government's insurance package. It can, however, be said -- and should be more often -- that the U.S. military fails to offer consistently good advice to its employees, particularly its younger employees, on how or whether to buy government or other kinds of insurance. Perplexingly, the military has repeatedly allowed unscrupulous insurance agents onto military bases and looked the other way while they sold expensive, outdated insurance and investment products to young soldiers. In some cases, insurance sales representatives who were banned from one base simply went to others.
Today the House Committee on Financial Services is expected to consider a bill, sponsored by Rep. Max Burns (R-Ga.), that would ban certain kinds of unfair insurance products altogether, clarify state insurance regulators' authority over military bases, and require insurance agents to inform military personnel in writing about the government's life insurance policies before making any kind of additional sale. The committee should support the bill and Congress should pass it swiftly; it's past time to remedy a scandal that has been the subject of multiple Defense Department investigations.
Groups that represent military families point out other steps the military could take: offer better transitional support to families of deceased soldiers who may suddenly stop receiving paychecks before their benefits have arrived, for example, and allow families with children to remain in base housing until the end of the school year. The military is better at dealing with survivors' problems than it used to be, but it could still work harder to help soldiers understand the possible consequences for their families of bad financial decisions, and provide more help to families who have had the worst possible news.