Military advocacy groups are calling for changes that give working-age retirees a longer grace period if they fail to set up a way to pay new fees for Tricare Select set to kick in Jan. 1.
As it is, if the retirees fail to set up their payments by Jan. 1, they’ll be kicked out of the health care program, and will have 90 days to apply for reinstatement.
Many advocacy organizations are hearing complaints about the new fees from angry members who may not have realized fees were coming, said Karen Ruedisueli, director of health affairs for the Military Officers Association of America. “Some of the angriest are the recent retirees who served almost their entire careers while our nation was at war and endured multiple combat deployments, only to face fee increases as they’re about to retire,” she said.
Starting Jan. 1, working-age retirees must pay an enrollment fee of $12.50 per month or $150 per year for individuals; and $25 per month or $300 a year for families.
MOAA and National Military Family Association want that 90-day grace period to be extended to 12 months, over concerns that retirees may lose health care coverage because they aren’t aware of the new requirement to pay enrollment fees. They also want retroactive coverage.
“We are seeking an extension to the grace period for Tricare reinstatement with retroactive coverage in the event someone misses the communication and fails to pay the enrollment fee by Jan. 1,” Ruedisueli said.
There were 407,431 military retirees and 764,936 retiree family members in Tricare Select at the end of 2019, according to a DoD report.
This doesn’t affect those in Tricare for Life. These fees affect retirees and their family members in the so-called Group A — the sponsor’s initial enlistment or appointment was before Jan. 1, 2018. The retirees in Group A are generally working-age retirees under age 65.
“Many beneficiaries understandably do not realize Congress passed this [Tricare Select] enrollment fee back with the [fiscal 2017 defense authorization act] and it is actually significantly lower than was proposed, thanks to the efforts of numerous associations who fought it,” Ruedisueli said. The provision was part of Tricare reform that was signed into law in 2016 by President Barack Obama.
MOAA and other organizations opposed the enrollment fee when it was proposed during the legislative process, she said. The Tricare reform was an 18-month process that began with a proposal to completely get rid of Tricare.
The 2016 law gave the Defense Health Agency discretion in deciding when to start charging working-age retirees enrollment fees for Tricare Select. But information was not immediately available from Defense Health Agency officials about whether it has the authority to extend the grace period to one year.
“There are sure to be retirees who don’t find out about the new fee by January 1,” said Eileen Huck, deputy director for health care for the National Military Family Association.
Advocates point to past transitions that were problematic, where despite the Defense Health Agency’s efforts, it was difficult to reach every beneficiary with updates about actions they needed to take to ensure their benefit continued. “Inevitably, some beneficiaries only learn about a new requirement when they try to use their benefit and find out they no longer have coverage,” Ruedisueli said.
In early 2019, officials with the Office of Personnel and Management extended the deadline by three months for beneficiaries to enroll in the Federal Employees Dental and Vision Insurance Program, known as FEDVIP, partly to help military retirees who were newly eligible for FEDVIP and missed the deadline to sign up. Some retirees didn’t realize they were losing their coverage in the Tricare Retiree Dental Program at the end of 2018.
MOAA also notes the disruption of the pandemic, “making it even more difficult to catch the attention of beneficiaries with critical enrollment fee information,” Ruedisueli said.
The communications from Tricare about open enrollment season may cause some confusion, as officials have told beneficiaries they don’t have to take any action if they want to stay in their same plan, and that message is still being conveyed on the Tricare website. But retirees who need to set up payments through allotment, electronic funds transfers, debit or credit card, must do so during the open enrollment period.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.