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Congress Must Block White House From Cutting Military Health Care

Gather around, boys and girls, I’m going to tell you a ghost story. This particular story is pretty scary but it still can have a happy ending. Hope springs eternal.

Once upon a time, our government promised young men and women that they would have lifetime health care if they volunteered to serve as least 20 years on active duty in our nation’s armed services. Many young people patriotically accepted and performed long and honorable service to our country.

But, after years of obtaining quality military health care, something happened. Our government began looking for ways to renege on its commitment.

It happens like this. When men and women retire from our military, they often choose to live near a military installation that has a convenient military hospital where they can go for medical care.

Some years ago, our government started several rounds of base closings in order to save money for other defense priorities such as sophisticated new weapons. When bases were closed, the military hospitals also were closed.

The defense department told retirees not to worry…they could sign up for the military’s health care plan, TRICARE. This plan has two options: TRICARE Prime which is treatment at military hospitals that remain open, or TRICARE Standard which is a fee for service plan which permits the patient to choose his own civilian doctor and own hospital, assuming the doctor and hospital will accept what TRICARE pays (not all doctors and hospitals agree to take TRICARE).

TRICARE serves as an important bridge for retirees who normally leave military service long before they become eligible for Medicare.

Retirees who sign up for TRICARE Prime are charged a nominal annual enrollment fee. Retirees who sign up for TRICARE Standard don’t currently pay an enrollment fee but are subject to small deductibles and co-pays.

Starting a few years ago, retirees 65 and older who were eligible for Medicare also were given TRICARE for free as a Medicare supplement. So far so good.

But this year, the Bush administration decided it was time to make major cuts in the TRICARE retiree program to help pay for the war in Iraq. The administration has proposed a defense budget which would triple the annual TRICARE Prime enrollment fee for retired officers under 65, double the annual enrollment fee for senior enlisted retirees under 65 and increase the annual enrollment fee by 41 percent for enlisted retirees E-6 and below under the age of 65.

Anyone who opts for TRICARE Standard would have to pay an annual enrollment fee for the first time, though it would not be as high as the TRICARE Prime enrollment fee. At the same time, the administration also proposed raising deductibles for everyone covered under TRICARE Standard.

Let’s be very specific. Retired officers under TRICARE Prime will see their annual enrollment fee for an individual go up from the current level of $230 to $700 in two years. Family enrollment fees for retired officers will go up from the current level of $460 to $1,400 in two years.

For senior enlisted retirees under TRICARE Prime the annual fee would increase from the current individual level of $230 to $475 in two years and the family enrollment fee would go up from $460 to $950 in two years.

Those military retiree families who elect TRICARE Standard could expect new enrollment fees ranging from $280 to $560 plus higher deductibles.

In a move that can only be described as cynical, the Bush administration is trying to create savings by raising fees, deductibles and co-pays to such a level that many retirees will abandon TRICARE in favor of health insurance provided by their post-military employers (for those who have second career jobs). The assumption is that employed retirees currently sign up for TRICARE rather than health insurance through their new employer because TRICARE is so much cheaper and since many employers require the employee to pay a hefty portion of their health insurance premiums.

Further complicating the situation is the fact that some retirees are working for small companies that don’t offer health insurance or are self-employed and thus would bear all the increased TRICARE costs.

The reason that TRICARE is so important for military retirees is that many retire from active duty service in their 40’s or 50’s and will not be eligible for Medicare until they reach age 65. In addition, some older retirees have dependents who are not Medicare eligible (younger spouses, dependent children) and need affordable health insurance for their families even when they reach Medicare age.

And so, at a time when our nation is asking more and more sacrifice from its armed forces and our military is having a hard time filling its recruiting quotas, the Bush administration is trying to decrease a long standing benefit and a key tool used to recruit new soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors.

Not only is this short-sighted, it is simply wrong. We made promises to the brave men and women who are willing to risk their lives for their country. We should honor those promises, not turn our backs on our nation’s heroes.

But this scary story can still have a happy ending. Legislation to block the implementation of the Bush administration's proposed increases in TRICARE fees and co-payments has been introduced in the U.S. House and has bi-partisan support. The bill, the Military Retirees Healthcare Protection Act (HR 4949), has been refered to the House Armed Services Committee.

Congress must approve this proposal.

The Bush administration underestimates the power of the constituent voice in influencing Congressional votes. Boys and girls – get on the phone, on e-mail or send a letter to your senator or representatives. Tell them to write a happier ending to this sad chapter of Bush politics. It’s not enough to simply trust the president now to do the right thing for our troops.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel, and is a scholar in residence at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

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