Action in Congress

March 1, 2007

Raising Tricare Fees

In January, the 14-member Task Force on the Future of Military Health Care held its first public meeting, with the Congressionally chartered study group pledging to deliver by May its recommendations on raising Tricare fees.

Congress created the task force to verify the appropriateness of the DOD proposals to slow what defense officials contend is alarming cost growth in military health care and to weigh other actions to control costs.

Defense officials have complained that annual military health costs are now $38 billion, up 130 percent since 2000.

Cost is projected to climb to $64 billion by 2015, representing 12 percent of total defense spending versus eight percent today. Most of the growth is linked to new benefits including Tricare for Life and Tricare pharmacy benefits for service elderly.

Half the task force is from DOD and half are outside health or fiscal management experts. Some task force members already are on record as supporting the fee increases, including retired Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, former Joint Chiefs Chairman.

The Air Force is heavily represented. The co-chairman is Gen. John D.W. Corley, vice chief of staff. Other Air Force-affiliated members are Lt. Gen. James G. Roudebush, surgeon general, and Maj. Gen. Joseph E. Kelley, Joint Staff surgeon.

Does Task Force Support It

No task force member challenged the DOD plan at the first meeting. Indeed, Robert Galvin, director of global health care for General Electric, said the plan “sounded like it was well-researched, rigorously thought through.”

Congress said one task force member had to be selected to represent beneficiaries. Defense officials chose retired Army Reserve Maj. Gen. Robert W. Smith III, former president of the Reserve Officers Association. ROA was one of two service associations to support the DOD plan when it was unveiled. Smith urged defense officials to explain that military health care is not an “entitlement,” as some retiree groups argue, but a “benefit” which, Smith suggested, employers adjust from time to time.

David S.C. Chu, defense personnel chief, noted that Tricare fees have not been raised since they were set in 1995. He warned the task force that unless the cost of Tricare is “rebalanced” it “cannot be sustained.”

The DOD plan would double the annual enrollment fees for Tricare Prime, the managed care program, for senior enlisted and nearly triple it for officer retirees over two years. Retirees E-6 and below and their dependents would see a 41 percent increase.

The annual deductibles for Tricare Standard would be raised, and, for the first time, Standard users would pay an enrollment fee. Pharmacy co-payments also would be raised.

William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said retired pay for an E-6 has climbed by $300 a month over the last decade while Tricare fees have been frozen.

Meanwhile, Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Tex.) and Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.) have reintroduced legislation to block any Tricare fee increases.

The legislation would ensure that Congress alone has authority to increase Tricare Prime enrollment fees for retirees and survivors, pharmacy co-payments, Tricare Reserve Select enrollment fees, and co-payments for inpatient care.

Edwards said in a press statement that the legislation would keep “the “promise of quality, affordable health care for military retirees.”

A Final Month’s Pay

Jones also introduced a bill that would allow surviving spouses of military retirees to receive the deceased’s final full month of retirement pay if couples are in an arrangement to have checks electronically deposited in their joint account.

The Defense Finance and Accounting Service requires that it be notified of a retiree’s death so retired pay can be suspended effective the day after death. At the urging of the Fleet Reserve Association, Jones drafted the Military Retiree Survivor Comfort Act.

FRA said it pushed for the bill because a widow, unaware of current policy, had faced financial difficulty when DFAS recouped money from her joint account. If this legislation is enacted, only survivors of retirees with joint accounts would receive a full month’s payment, regardless of what day of the month the retiree dies.

Joint Hearing Restored

Only days after Democrats assumed the chairmanships of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees, they announced plans to reinstate the traditional joint hearing held each spring where leaders of veterans service groups come before a joint House-Senate committee hearing.

The timing of such hearings, in the spring and fall, allows major vet groups to testify before Congress while their organizations are holding their annual meetings so that interested veterans can pack the hearing room.

Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) two years ago replaced what he viewed as joint hearing spectacles with separate House and Senate VA committee hearings early in the budget year. (See “Action in Congress: Empowered … or Muzzled,” January 2006, p. 24.)

“Democrats are relegating veterans to the back bench by receiving their input on the budget and [on] legislative issues after the budget is put together,” said Buyer, the VA committee’s ranking Republican. Veterans groups “must engage Congress with timely substance in order to best advocate the interests of their veterans.”

But veterans groups praised the move. Paul A. Morin, national commander of the American Legion, expressed appreciation to Democratic leaders for restoring the Legion’s “full voice” on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), new chairman of the House VA committee, shrugged off Buyer’s arguments. “You want to have veterans see the process,” Filner said. “You can do both. You can have them in the budget process directly, which I’m going to do, and you can add the public hearings.”

New Deployment Pay

Officials announced plans to pay $1,000 more per month to reservists deployed earlier or for longer than new Guard and Reserve rotation policies dictate. The precise rules for implementing this new pay were still being developed at press time. (See “Aerospace World: SECDEF Caps Reserve Call-Ups …” p. 19.)

Pentagon personnel chief David S.C. Chu told a press conference that the payments should go to “those whose expectations we seriously violate” rather than to members forced to deploy a day early or to return a day late.

“I don’t think any of our people believe, nor do I think the American taxpayers believe, we should suddenly give you some big compensation,” for minor schedule lapses, Chu said.

GI Bill Proposals

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) recently introduced his first bill, to improve Montgomery GI Bill benefits for personnel who have deployed since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The legislation would enhance education benefits to cover tuition, room and board, and provide a monthly stipend of $1,000.

The demands of the war on terrorism justify a more generous benefit, Webb said.

In general, to qualify for Webb’s enhanced program, veterans must have served at least two years of active duty, with at least some period of active duty time served beginning on or after Sept. 11, 2001.

The enhanced educational benefits would be set to match the duration of time served but not to exceed a total of 36 months coverage.

Veterans would have up to 15 years to use their benefits.