Health Care

Troops give early OK to proposed health care changes

Active-duty members surveyed by the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission overwhelmingly support the panel's proposal to change the military health care insurance system for their families.

Up to 90 percent of the active-duty troops who participated in the survey, which polled 1.7 million troops, family members, reservists and retirees, said they would prefer the commission's plan — referred to in the commission report as Tricare Choice — than the current system.

For active-duty families, reserve component members and retirees under age 65 as well as other eligible beneficiaries, Tricare Choice would offer commercial insurance plans of varying benefits and prices, including health maintenance organizations, preferred provider groups and fee-for-service plans.

It would allow beneficiaries to continue to be seen at military hospitals and clinics if they prefer and insurance companies participating in the program would be required to include these treatment facilities in their networks.

To pay for the plan, active-duty members would receive a new monthly "basic allowance for health care" to cover the offset of cost shares or co-payments for family members enrolled in a plan.

Active-duty members still would be required to be seen by military physicians, so troops without dependents would not receive the allowance.

Reserve component members would be able to purchase plans from the Defense Department program at a reduced rate to "encourage health and dental readiness and streamline mobilization of reserve personnel."

Retirees would pay their own premiums, which under the commission proposal would be set lower than the average civilian cost shares "as recognition of military members' service."

But retiree contributions retirees would — and should — gradually increase over many years, according to the report.

The survey of active-duty members found troops place a premium on their ability to choose a health care provider as well as flexible appointment scheduling.

A report on the military health system last year found that military beneficiaries often encounter problems making timely appointments.

A 2013 Government Accountability Office investigation found that more than a third of military beneficiaries who use Tricare Standard — the military health system's traditional fee-for-service program — had trouble finding a doctor who takes Tricare.

A system like Tricare Choicer would ease such problems, the commission said.

The survey found that of a list of 24 benefits, active-duty personnel asked to rate the relative importance of each benefit put health care premiums at No. 11, health care experience quality at No. 12 and health care provider choices at No. 14.

Their top concerns were retirement, basic allowance for housing and its tax exemption, and Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits and education programs.

Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association, said Thursday she was happy to see that the commission listened" to its audience, including family members, troops and military advocacy groups.

However, she noted that if the commission's health care plan is approved, troops, retirees and their families would have a steep learning curve to understand the new benefit and how to best take advantage of it.

"If there isn't a good education plan in place for the retired and the currently serving, and their families, this won't work," Raezer said.

Navy spouse Kelly Hruska said she has no problem with the proposal, although she agreed with Raezer on the education aspect.

"This isn't something where you can put out a flier and say, 'Take this home and read this,' " said Hruska, who also works at NMFA.

The expansive proposals to overhaul the military pay-and-benefits system would require congressional action to set in motion. While many lawmakers issued statements this week thanking the nine commission members for their 18 months of work, nearly all said they would reserve opinions on the report until they have a chance to examine it thoroughly.

Both the House and the Senate Armed Services committees will hold hearings next week on the report.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. chairman of the Senate committee, said Thursday that the report "deserves thorough review and thoughtful consideration."

"Our top priority throughout this process will be to maintain and enhance our nation's ability to recruit and retain the best to serve in our all-volunteer force," McCain said.

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