February 25, 2015
Martin Matishak | The Hill
The leaders of several prominent veterans’ and uniformed services’ organizations are split over a proposal to effectively abolish Tricare, the military’s health insurance plan.
The proposal, one of 15 recommendations put forward by the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, has become a flashpoint on Capitol Hill.
The suggested change would allow nearly 5 million active-duty family members, reserve soldiers and military retirees who are not yet old enough to receive Medicare, to leave the Tricare system and sign up for a private insurance plan.
The proposal “is a welcome shot across the bow,” Norbert Ryan, President and CEO of the Military Officers Association Of America, told the Senate Armed Services Personnel subcommittee on Wednesday.
He said the “status quo is unacceptable” but urged senators to look for ways to modernize Tricare “in a systematic manner without resorting to its elimination.”
Ryan’s group recently conducted a survey of more than 7,500 beneficiaries and found that eight out of 10 prefer Tricare to broadly comparable alternatives.
In a statement, The Retired Enlisted Association struck a similar chord.
“Scrapping the entire Tricare system would represent a change in the entire philosophy of delivering military health coverage,” the group said, urging panelists against “blowing up the system.”
But Gus Hargett, president of the National Guard Association, said the proposed change has been “well received” by his members since many don’t live near a major military installation, and therefore do not have easy access to many Tricare-accepting providers.
However, he added, the association is concerned about the costs associated with the plan and advised lawmakers to bring in actuaries to do a cost-benefit analysis.
Meanwhile, Joyce W. Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association, said beneficiaries are “used to Tricare” and “accepting” of some of the plan’s drawbacks, such as a limited provided network.
She suggested lawmakers could tell the Defense Department to delay awarding the next round of Tricare contracts – which usually run for five years – so that the Pentagon can provide them more data about the system.
Thomas Snee, the Fleet Reserve Association’s national executive director, said that the proposal requires “additional reviews.”
At the end of the hearing, subpanel chairman Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) admitted lawmakers have been “wrestling this alligator” for years and that he had “lost faith” in the existing system.
He said that while he sees the benefits of scrapping the current plan — including more choice for members of the reserve and families — military retirees likely will end up paying more out of pocket for health coverage.
Graham said he doesn’t know what the right system is but “change is coming.”