By Patricia Kime
Members of a key Senate panel warned Pentagon officials Wednesday of a looming, lengthy debate on the Defense Department's proposal to raise Tricare fees for military retirees, saying the increases unfairly target those who devoted their careers to the armed forces.
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a former Marine and current chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee's personnel panel, said the proposal reneges on an obligation established when the nation's volunteer forces signed up.
"You can't renegotiate the front end once the back end is done," Webb said. "You're changing someone's contract after the contract has been signed."
Addressing the Defense Department's top health care official, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Dr. Jonathan Woodson, Webb took particular note of the proposed new fees for Tricare For Life, a health plan for retirees 65 and older that serves as an adjunct to Medicare.
Under Tricare For Life, retirees must purchase Medicare Part B, which costs at least $99 a month. The proposed Tricare for Life fees would add an additional $35 to $155 a year to the cost, depending on the retiree's income.
"I think there are members up here that don't realize military retirees have to buy into Medicare. These fees don't show up in the DoD budget but they do come out of someone's wallet," Webb said.
Pentagon officials reiterated their stance that without further raising Tricare fees, which increased slightly last year for the first time since the program was created 16 years ago, the Defense Department would have to cut more personnel and look at trimming weapons programs.
Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale pointed out that civilian health insurance and good "Medi-gap coverage" costs much more than the proposed increased fees. He said the Pentagon could face the prospect of cutting an additional 60,000 personnel -- above an already-planned reduction of 127,000 people -- to sustain the current Tricare benefit.
"If you don't support us [on fee increases], I'm not sure where we go," Hale said.
As required under the Budget Control Act, the Pentagon must trim $487 billion from its budget over the next decade. The Tricare fee proposals account for 5 percent of the cuts, according to Pentagon officials.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., acknowledged the budget constraints facing the Defense Department but said that the military population differs significantly from civilians and cautioned DoD officials against making comparisons.
"This is different than the rest of the population -- what they have sacrificed and what they have put on the line for us," Ayotte said.
Webb said he has instructed his staff to examine the Pentagon's assertion that working-age retirees now pay less than 10 percent of the total cost of their health care. According to the Defense Department, they paid about 27 percent when Tricare was first implemented in 1994.
The new fees would raise retirees' cost-share percentage to 14 percent, according to Pentagon data.
The Defense Department's proposed 2013 budget calls for an increase in annual enrollment fees for retirees in Tricare Prime to rise by 30 percent to 78 percent, depending on retirement income.
Working-age retirees -- those younger than 65 -- also would pay annual enrollment fees for Tricare Standard and Extra: $70 for an individual and $140 for a family, and deductibles for those plans would rise by $10 for individuals and $20 for families.