Battleland

Military Health Care: Helping Retirees, Screwing the Taxpayers

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Pentagon leaders have been complaining for years that skyrocketing health-care costs are hurting the military’s ability to buy the stuff it needs — like troops and weapons. Congress has just kicked the Pentagon in the teeth in its efforts to address the issue.

In January, Defense Secretary Robert Gates detailed plans to try to bring health-care spending under control. “For some time, I’ve spoken about the department’s unaffordable health costs, and in particular the benefits provided to working-age retirees under the Tricare program,” Gates said. “Many of these beneficiaries are employed full-time while receiving their full pensions, and often forego their employers’ health plan to remain with Tricare. This should not come as a surprise, given that the current Tricare enrollment fee was set in 1995 at $460 a year for the basic family plan, and has not been raised since.”

Federal civilians pay about $5,000 for roughly the same kind of coverage; active-duty troops pay nothing. Gates proposed “modest increases” in fees — to $520 annually — in 2012, and linking future increases to inflation.

About half of the 4.5 million military retirees and their families remain on Tricare even when they are offered insurance by their post-military employers because Tricare is such a bargain for them. But not for the taxpayer: Pentagon health-care costs, $19 billion a year a decade ago, are more than $50 billion annually now. Even groups like the Military Officers Association of America, dedicated to keeping such benefits flowing to retirees, know retaining such perks is a challenge:

One key tenet is to defuse the biggest argument working against you. On the TRICARE front, that argument is “TRICARE fees haven’t been raised since 1995.” That’s a conversation-stopping statement when you’re talking to almost any legislator or civilian. When we first started these battles, it was “no fee increases in 10 years.” Now, it’s “no fee increases in 16 years.” No matter how good our other rationale is, that argument is a potential killer, and it gets stronger with each passing year.

But not to worry. A congressional subcommittee has just crafted its version of Pentagon health-care legislation for the coming year. Subtitle A is entitled Improvements to Health Benefits, and its bottom line is as unsurprising as it is shameful:

And they could very well do the same thing next year, just changing 2012 to 2013. No wonder Gates wants to leave.

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