Battle Looms Over Military Health Care Reform

By Jon Harper
Members of the Armed Services Committees are expected to make a push this year for military health care reform. But opposition from advocacy groups and lawmakers standing for reelection may stymie those efforts, analysts said.

In recent years, Pentagon officials have been sounding the alarm about the need to rein in personnel costs. Health care for troops, retirees and their families now costs the Pentagon about $50 billion annually, roughly 10 percent of its budget.

“One out of every 10 dollars is going to health care,” said Stephen Ondra, a former military doctor and the current chief medical officer for the Health Care Service Corp., at a recent Center for a New American Security conference. “We have to do that in a more efficient way … that will give more flexibility in terms of budget dollars to the Department of Defense” for other priorities such as modernization.

In a report last year, the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission estimated that implementing its health care reform proposals — including compelling non-active duty beneficiaries to select commercial insurance plans — would save the Pentagon more than $6 billion annually.

The commission “provided a nice pathway,” said Tina Jonas, former Pentagon comptroller, at a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies conference. “I don’t know how far they [lawmakers] will go but … it could provide a nice potential relief” for modernization accounts.

But advocacy groups are lining up against potential changes to the TRICARE system.

“Proposals earlier this year recommended … forcing beneficiaries into plans similar to those of federal civilians, imposing significantly higher fees, and means-testing … benefits so beneficiaries with higher incomes would pay even more,” the Military Officers Association of America, a non-profit group, said in a December statement. “All of those and others could be on the table again in 2016,” it warned.

MOAA leaders will be “storming the Hill” this spring to pressure lawmakers not to approve reforms that the group opposes, the statement said. It encouraged likeminded individuals to send a “barrage” of correspondence to members of Congress.

“We’ve seen from years of experience … when legislators get tons of mail on a topic, the vast majority aren’t going to ignore their constituents,” the statement said.

Phillip Carter, director of the Military, Veterans and Society Program at CNAS, said concerns about personnel costs “don’t trump the very effective and very powerful groups in Congress and in Washington that stand up for people” who receive military benefits.

Ondra said approving major health care reforms in 2016 would be difficult politically. “In an election year I’m not overly optimistic, but I think that we can start the conversation.”

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Health Affairs

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