New budget may call for fee hike

As defense budgets grew over the past decade, Congress shrugged off complaints of runaway military health costs and blocked every proposal from the Bush administration to raise TRICARE fees sharply on retirees.

Defense budgets have stopped rising, however, and Defense officials today are sounding more confident that Congress will follow last October’s $5-a-month bump in TRICARE Prime enrollment fees for working-age retirees with more substantial fee increases for retirees of all ages.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, outlined plans Jan. 26 to lower defense budgets over the next 10 years by $487 billion in compliance with the Budget Control Act passed last spring to dampen growth in federal debt.

Though Panetta and Dempsey withheld full details on proposals to curb personnel costs, until President Obama presents his 2013 budget request to Congress Feb. 13, they said the personnel saving initiatives would include:

n New enrollment fees, co-pays and deductibles on retirees under 65, phasing them in over five years and using a “tiered approach” so that senior-grade retirees pay higher fees than lower ranking retirees.

n A new annual enrollment fee for the TRICARE for Life insurance supplement to Medicare, used by retirees 65 and older. This fee also would be tiered so retirees drawing smaller retirement checks pay less.

These changes, Defense leaders said, still would leave military retiree health care fees significantly below “comparable civilian equivalents.”

n TRICARE pharmacy co-payments would be increased again in ways to discourage use of the more convenient but more costly retail outlets and encourage greater use of base pharmacies and the home delivery program.

n Persons medically-retired by their service, and surviving spouses of members who died on active duty, would be exempt from the higher fees.

On active duty pay raises, Panetta said starting in 2015 they would be capped in some unspecified way though no member would see a drop in pay.

The budget also will ask Congress to establish a “BRAC-like” commission to recommend cost-saving ref-orms to military retirement. Any retirement changes, however, would impact only future recruits, not the current force or retirees. BRAC refers to Base Realignment and Closure commissions. They were given broad authority to recommend base closings, which Congress could accept or reject but not modify. The retirement commission would have similar powers regarding compensation changes.

Coincidently, Panetta said the budget will seek two more rounds of base closings to help to trim infrastructure costs.

Defense background papers explained that personnel costs make up a third of defense spending today but the planned cuts to personnel accounts would represent only one ninth of total funding to be stripped from future budgets, a concession to the importance of keeping a quality force.

“This budget recognizes that (people), far more than any weapon system, far more than any technology, are the great strength of the United States military,” Panetta said. “For that reason, we focus first on every other area of the defense enterprise for savings, in order to minimize any impact on the quality of the troops and their families.”