By Patricia Kime
Defense bills sponsored by the House and Senate Armed Services committees effectively quash any large Tricare fee increases in the coming fiscal year, but on Wednesday the House fortified its position to protect the oldest Tricare beneficiaries from paying any new fees in fiscal 2014.
In the early hours of Wednesday, the House approved by voice vote an amendment to the fiscal 2014 defense appropriations bill that would prohibit new fees for Tricare for Life, the Tricare program available to Medicare-eligible military retirees and their families.
Sponsored by Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, the amendment guarantees that funds in the bill cannot be used to implement Tricare for Life enrollment fees.
The Pentagon has pressed to increase enrollment fees for all Tricare programs for retirees and their family members. Defense officials say the ballooning military medical budget is unsustainable and it must increase fees to protect force readiness.
In offering her amendment, however, Hanabusa said she doesn't buy that argument.
"Year after year, we hear from the Defense Department that health care costs for our soldiers and veterans are spiraling out of control, and that Tricare is "crippling' DoD with its rise in costs. Yet, for the past two fiscal years, the Pentagon has found a way to reprogram hundreds of millions of dollars from defense health accounts to "higher priorities,'" she said.
The Pentagon needs congressional authorization to increase fees. Without that authority, it must follow current law, which restricts increases in Tricare Prime enrollment fees to no more than the most recent annual cost-of-living adjustment in military retired pay -- usually no more than a few percentage points -- and keeps the Tricare Standard, Extra and Tricare for Life programs fee-free.
Hanabusa said she offered the amendment to protect a "critical incentive package" that helps maintain a professional military.
"The relatively low cost of health care and strong benefits are the fundamental elements that are necessary to not just recruit, but also sustain an all-volunteer force," she said.
Although significant Tricare fee increases appear to be off the table for fiscal 2014, working-age retirees on Tricare Prime likely will see nominal fee hikes of no more than 1.7 percent starting Oct. 1.
They also may experience increases in co-payments for doctor visits because neither the House nor Senate version of the proposed defense bill blocks an administration request to increase those fees.
The administration wants to increase co-pays for most visits to $16 from $12, although mental health visits would remain at $12.
Congressional Editor Rick Maze contributed to this report.