With Retirement System Opt-In Numbers Low, Officials Make Final Push

Only about 19 percent of the 1.6 million troops eligible to switch into the Defense Department's new Blended Retirement System have done so, and time is running out to make the decision, officials warned Wednesday.

"For those on the fence who have yet to make their decision on the choice, time is fleeting," Jeri Busch, who directs military compensation in the DoD's Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, told reporters during a Nov. 28 roundtable. "For some, this is a significant decision -- I will actually add it is a significant decision for all -- but it can be a difficult decision for some."

Active-duty service members, as well as Guard and Reserve members, who had not yet hit 12 years or had less than 4,320 retirement points before Dec. 31, 2017, are eligible to make the change from the DoD's traditional pension-based retirement system into the new plan.

The new program, known as the Blended Retirement System (BRS), was mandated by Congress in 2016 and combines a smaller pension payment for those who reach retirement age with a 401(k)-like contributions-matching system through the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) for troops who do not plan to stay in the service for their career.

Related: The Blended Retirement System Explained

The cutoff date for changing plans is Dec. 31. But as of Nov. 26, only about 306,000 had opted into the system, said Andrew Cohen, who directs the department's office of financial readiness. Service members who joined after Jan. 1 of this year -- about 100,000 -- were automatically enrolled.

A current breakdown of enrollments by service branch was not immediately available. As of Oct. 22, the Marine Corps had the highest opt-in rate at 36.6 percent, with the Navy at 20.5 percent, the Air Force at 16.9 percent, and the Army at 10.5 percent, according to an Army Times report last month.

Although Busch said the DoD has "no target or goal for the number of opt-in members," she did laud the Marine Corps for how it has involved unit leadership in publicizing the program, requiring Marines to make an active election between the new and old systems. The Army, Navy and Air Force require troops to take action only if they want to change.

"It is true that the Marine Corps decided to handle the opt-in a little bit differently. That's the Marine Corps being the Marine Corps," she said. "We believe that part of the Marine Corps' effort has been very intensive leadership involvement and engagement, and so, from our perspective here in DoD, it isn't a matter of whether or not someone had to fill out a form to stay in the legacy system. ... We don't think that that's the main reason why the Marines is doing somewhat better, if you will. We think it's more the fact that the Marine Corps, as is their culture, they are very much engaged from a leadership perspective all the way down to the squad level to make sure their members are aware of all the information about BRS and are taking action."

Education outreach on BRS has been ongoing, with troops required to complete mandatory online training. About 95 percent of service members met that requirement, Busch said.

She said officials are continuing their publicity campaign for the new program through the end of the year, and have tested the enrollment system to make sure it can handle an influx of last-minute sign-ups at the end of December.

Busch said she also expects the Guard and Reserve to have a high sign-up rate over the final month since many units use their December drill dates to complete annual training and address personnel issues.

"December is a common time for this kind of training to take place within Guard units," Busch said. "It was very effective last year when they were doing the mandatory training and ... we think it will be effective this year in reminding Guard members about the opt-in decision."

Service members can elect to change systems through MyPay or, for Marines, Marine Online.

-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at amy.bushatz@military.com.

This story was updated Nov. 29 to clarify who is eligible for BRS. Troops who had not yet hit 12 years before Dec. 31, 2017 are eligible.

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