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thedrifter
01-27-06, 08:12 AM
January 26, 2006
Pentagon proposes steep hikes in Tricare costs for retirees
By Rick Maze
Times staff writer

A Pentagon proposal that could triple some Tricare insurance costs for military retirees and their families is drawing sharp criticism from military advocacy groups and members of Congress.

The plan, being considered as part of the 2007 budget request to be unveiled Feb. 6, would increase Tricare fees for retirees under age 65 beginning Oct. 1.

Increases would be substantial — as much as $1,200 more a year by 2009 — with no end in sight because the plan calls for annual rate hikes in 2010 and beyond that would match inflation.

Details on the proposal were provided by the Military Officers Association of America, one of many military-related grups mobilizing to fight the proposal.

Defense Department officials confirmed that Tricare fees were being considered as part of the 2007 budget, but would not discuss any details until the White House releases the federal budget plan.

Senior Pentagon leaders, both military and civilian, know their plan will meet with stiff opposition and are trying to prepare a united front, defense sources said. The Joint Chiefs are considering sending a rare joint letter to Congress explaining why the fee increases are important because they do not see how the military can afford needed weapons programs if soaring health care costs remain unchecked, sources said.

A key element of the proposal is to discourage retirees from using the military medical system if they have other options, such as insurance through a post-service employer, because this would generate savings far greater than any money raised through higher enrollment fees.

“This is wrong on so many levels,” said Steve Strobridge, government relations director for the Military Officers Association of America.

“In the middle of a war, with troops and families vastly overstressed, recruiting already in the toilet, and retention at risk, the Defense Department wants to pay for weapons by cutting manpower and trying to cut career military benefits by $1,000 a year or more? That’s just flat unconscionable. Not only is it grossly unfair to the people, but it poses terrible risks for long-term retention and readiness.”

Strobridge acknowledged that health care costs are rising, but said he can’t see why defense officials are willing to accept massive increases in the cost of weapons but not in personnel.

“If DoD is willing to accept 400 percent to 500 percent cost growth in weapons systems, then people are no less important,” he said, noting that the cost of an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer has increased 392 percent since 1985, while the cost of an F-22 Raptor has jumped by 526 percent.

“The Pentagon needs to acknowledge its own management responsibility for rising weapons costs rather than trying to stick military retirees with the bill.”

A blow to expectations

Active-duty members would not be directly affected by the fee increases, but representatives of major military associations said there is an impact on morale.

“For anyone well along in their career who is thinking about retirement, this is a blow to their expectations about what the government is going to do for them,” said Jim Lokovic of the Air Force Sergeants Association, who has been traveling to military bases to discuss changes in pay and benefits.

“Many of the people I have been talking with have 10 or more years of service, and remember when they were told by recruiters and career counselors that if they just stayed around, the government was going to provide them with free health care in retirement,” Lokovic said.

“Well, we learned years ago it wasn’t free, and now we are learning that it isn’t cheap either,” he said. “I think those who are well along toward retirement in their career are going to stay … but those who are at the decision point are going to see this as an erosion of retirement benefits. I promise you some are going to get out because of it.”

Strobridge agreed. “Don’t try to tell us that a country that can afford hundreds of billions of dollars in pork spending and tax cuts can’t afford to pay for both military weapons and retiree health care,” he said.

More than 22,000 members of the officer’s group have written Congress opposing the initiative, he said.

House Democrats seized on the controversy with a Jan. 25 letter to President Bush asking him to disavow the fee proposal.

“It is unconscionable that you would even consider a fee increase on the men and women in uniform who bravely sacrificed for our country, especially during a time of war,” states the letter from House Democratic leaders. “We must demonstrate our commitment to our troops and future veterans by assuring them that just as they protected us, we will take care of them when their service ends.”

They said the fee increase not only is unfair to military retirees, but will also hurt military readiness through its impact on recruiting and retention.

“Your administration must not shift additional costs upon veterans or military retirees,” they wrote, adding that to do so would be “a national disgrace and … a pointed rebuke to those who served and have earned those benefits.”

Ellie

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