Health Care

Advocacy groups split over proposed Tricare reforms

Military advocacy groups showed a mixed reaction Wednesday to a plan to overhaul the Tricare health program, with some expressing conditional support for proposed reform and one pitching its own plan.

Testifying for the first time on recommendations by the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission to revamp the military health system, military service associations were split over the commission's health care recommendations that call for keeping active-duty members within a military health care system and moving families and retirees to a commercially-based insurance program.

Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association, said her group supports the plan "in principle" but needs more information before fully endorsing it.

"Questions you ask about the commission's proposals should also be asked about the current system — questions about how does this structure promote medical readiness, how does it ensure timely access and quality care at the best possible price for both beneficiaries and the government?" Raezer said.

The National Guard Association of the United States also expressed reserved support but "remains concerned about the actual price" of the plan to beneficiaries, said retired Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett, the group's president.

"Right now, not every member of the Guard can afford health care, and along with maintaining military readiness, one of our top priorities is to see every member of the Guard and their families are able to afford health insurance," Hargett said.

Standing apart from other groups testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the commission's recommendations, retired Vice Adm. Norb Ryan, president of the Military Officers Association of America, said that rather than opting for wholesale reform, the current system should be redesigned to improve efficiency.

MOAA maintains that streamlining the current military health system under one command with budget authority would provide administrative cost savings while maximizing use of military hospitals and clinics.

"Despite its current challenges and shortcomings, MOAA believes Tricare is not currently in a 'death spiral' as some have said, and it is not broken," Ryan said.

Under the commission's recommendation, active-duty members and mobilized reserve component members would receive medical care from the military, with easier access to specialty care in the civilian sector if they need it.

But their family members, and retirees under 65 and their family members, would get care care through commercial insurers, choosing from a selection of more than 250 plans similar to the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program.

Active-duty families would receive a stipend to cover the cost of private insurance plans, but military retirees and their families would be responsible for a larger share of their health expenses.

Those who are considered "working-age" and not yet eligible for Medicare would see average health insurance premiums rise from roughly $500 a year to $1,769 in 15 years, according to the commission.

Average total out-of-pocket costs for working age retirees also would increase, from about $2,000 a year to $3,500, according to panel estimates.

Panel members said the program would provide a substantial improvement over the current Tricare system by increasing choice and improving access to care.

The current system, they say, is limited by low reimbursement rates that fail to attract quality health care providers and is plagued by long patient wait times and overall dissatisfaction.

"This debacle that occurred in the VA on waiting times? The reason America got upset about it was the integrity question. But if you go into the [military treatment facilities] to talk to the soldiers, talk to the wives, the waiting times for primary care and specialty care? Shameless," said commission member Steve Buyer, a former congressman.

The Fleet Reserve Association neither supports nor opposes the commission's proposal a this point, saying it needs further review, according to National Executive Director Thomas Snee.

Senators at the hearing seemed receptive to the proposal in the general belief that reform is needed to sustain health care services for the military community.

But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said lawmakers need to be mindful of how the proposal would affect retirees who would bear much of the increased cost of the plan.

But, he added, "I have lost faith" in the current system.

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