View Full Version : Veterans protest Tricare fee hikes

03-27-07, 05:43 AM
Veterans protest Tricare fee hikes
March 27, 2007 - 12:00AM
daily news staffVeterans in Onslow County say they plan to fight a proposed increase in Tricare fees with all they've got.

It's a battle worth fighting because of the numbers involved, they say.

"It's going to affect a lot of people on a small income who budget from payday to payday, especially those who are disabled, but aren't 100 percent disabled," said Joe Houle, a retired sergeant major who served 32 years in the Marine Corps. "Of course it's going to hurt those that have large families also."

Department of Defense officials announced plans earlier this year to raise Tricare enrollment fees and co-payments for military retirees under age 65 and their dependents. The proposed increases would not affect active-duty nor military retirees over the age of 65.

The DoD proposition includes raising enrollment fees and deductibles for under-65 retirees in a "triple-tiered fee schedule tied to rank," according to reports by Tom Philpott, a military columnist. After two years of increases, fees would rise annually by the percentage change in premiums for federal civilian health care.

Enlisted and commissioned retirees currently pay an annual enrollment fee of $230 for individuals and $460 for families. With the proposed increase, those numbers for junior enlisted retirees would rise to $325 for individuals and $650 for families. Enlisted retirees at pay grades E-7 and above would pay $475 for individuals and $950 per family by October 2008, while retired officers of all ranks would pay $700 per individual and $1,400 per family, according to an American Forces Press Service report.

Onslow-area retirees are urging others to write state and U.S. officials about the changes.

"They expect flak from veterans organizations," said Paul O'Toole, chairman for the Camp Lejeune Military Retiree Council and a retired Marine Corps colonel who served 40 years. "We have to go beyond that and write to our state and U.S. officials. We have to write to the president."

O'Toole said that military retirees have a "unique dedication in sacrifices and hardships" and are therefore owed the lowest possible health care costs.

"If we all stood up to be counted, they'd have to fix it," Houle said.

U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., reintroduced the Military Retirees Health Care Protection Act earlier this year to address the issue. The resolution, currently being reviewed by the Subcommittee on Military Personnel, would not allow the fee increases.

Officials unsuccessfully proposed similar increases last year.

"They were getting so much flak on it they backed off because it was an election year," O'Toole said. "When you look at the whole picture, we were told medical is going to be free. Well, it's not free and they're trying to drive a number of retirees away from utilizing that system."

That is one of the main reasons O'Toole said he thinks the DoD wants to hike fees - to lessen the number of Tricare users.

The military health system's costs account for 8 percent of the defense budget and will be at $38 billion this year, up 131 percent since 2000, according to an American Forces Press Service report. Defense officials say rising costs need to be addressed, as Tricare fees have not been hiked since they were set in 1995.

They also cite younger retirees using their Tricare health benefits rather than those of civilian employers as a strain on the system. New programs such as Tricare for Life add to the problem.

"They don't want to change fees for active duty because that will affect recruitment and retention," O'Toole said. "But it will affect them later. Most don't even know this is happening."

The DoD hopes to raise Tricare fees for 3.1 million beneficiaries and hopes that a new study group, the Task Force on the Future of Military Healthcare, will endorse that in a report to Congress in May. The 14-member panel was created by Congress, but many, including O'Toole, say its members were appointed by those who wanted fee increases.

"It's not an impartial task force," O'Toole said.

Many veterans think DoD needs to come up with an alternative.

"I understand that costs go up, but there should be other ways of coming up with that money without hitting people who need a break," Houle said. "People are very displeased because they were promised free medical services when they joined the military."

Contact staff writer Chrissy Vick at cvick@freedomenc.com or by calling 353-1171, ext. 239.