Health Care

Tricare changes, new fees rejected by Senate committee

The Senate Armed Services Committee has rejected the Defense Department's proposal to overhaul Tricare, likely giving military families, retirees and their families a reprieve from major changes to their health care coverage for at least another year.

In its draft version of the 2016 defense authorization bill, committee members decided against making sweeping changes to Tricare, including new fees for most retirees and abolishing the current structure in favor of a consolidated plan that divided programs into managed and network care, and non-network care.

Instead, the committee bill would make some small adjustments to Tricare pharmacy fees, allow Tricare beneficiaries up to four urgent care visits per year without the need for pre-authorization, and require the Pentagon to publish information about access to care and provide numerous reports on the status of its health facilities and services.

The armed services committee's personnel panel initially had considered including the DoD proposals, but the full committee did not go along with the changes, which would have introduced fees for some beneficiaries to use emergency rooms, military treatment facilities and the Tricare for Life program.

Pentagon budget planners had argued that the new fee structure is needed to curb the rising costs of caring for the nation's military population, especially aging retirees and their families who, officials say, pay roughly 8 percent of their health care costs out of pocket today, compared to about 28 percent when Tricare was introduced years ago.

A blue-ribbon commission in January made a recommendation to move all non-active-duty Tricare beneficiaries to commercial-based health plans. Some senators have expressed interest in that proposal, but it has been rejected by the White House, and House lawmakers said they could not incorporate the proposal into their draft defense bill until they had thoroughly studied it.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the proposed legislation a "reform bill."

He said the $613 billion bill, which includes $32.3 billion for the defense health program, is "not about how much we added or subtracted."

"We've got to reform, otherwise we will lose whatever confidence remains among taxpayers that we are spending their defense taxpayer dollars wisely," McCain said.

The full Senate still must approve the proposed bill. Differences between the Senate and House versions of the legislation will be reconciled in a conference committee later this year.

Like the Senate committee's bill, the House version of the legislation, which was approved by that full chamber Friday on a 269-151 vote, included few alterations to Tricare.

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