MY OPINION

Robert S. Dudney, editor in chief, Air Force Magazine 3/22/06

WASHINGTON, DC - In 1995, various federal budgeteers advanced the idea that government-sponsored health care for military retirees was nothing more than a “contingent benefit” - in other words, it was a privilege and not a right.

We remember their words today as an example of shocking ignorance. Ninety percent of military retirees insisted they had been promised these benefits, and they papered Capitol Hill with their complaints. Chastened officials repudiated the budgeteers and accepted “the promise” as valid. Elderly retirees were by law given access to the Pentagon's Tricare medical system and related benefits.

The system itself was expanded. Yet questions persisted. Was this care supposed to be “free,” “low-cost” or
what? Should the country's liability be limited? Eleven years on, some officials still argue about this. In a Feb. 6 statement, William Winkenwerder Jr., the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, raised alarms about rising costs. In 1995, health care consumed 5 percent of DOD's budget; now, it's 8 percent, and unless
something is done, the figure in 2015 could top 12 percent. Winkenwerder called this “unsustainable growth.”

David S.C. Chu, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, famously declared of retiree and veteran benefits, “They are taking away from the nation's ability to defend itself.”

Pentagon chief Donald H. Rumsfeld told Congress that retiree care must change “because it's an enormous amount of money.” That prompted a riposte from Stephen P. Condon, chairman of the Air Force Association.

“We appreciate that the administration is attempting to make the best out of a tough fiscal situation,” he said on Feb. 22, “but the budget must not be balanced on the backs of veterans.”

That shouldn't happen - but it might. The Bush administration's approach, as laid out in the fiscal 2007 budget, would sharply raise Tricare enrollment fees - doubling or tripling some - for retirees under age 65. This is supposed to yield savings of $32 billion over 10 years, but it could anger affected retirees and dependents.

“You're about to take your best recruiters and turn them into your worst nightmare,” Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., warned senior defense officials at a recent House Armed Services Committee session.

There are some 2.1 million military retirees and survivor-benefit recipients and 6 million to 8 million dependents. If the fee increases are imposed and many retirees revolt, it will be because Washington lost sight of some important truths:

  • Paying for retiree care is not a favor, but an obligation. It is unfortunate that costs have turned out to be so high, but that is not the fault of retirees.
  • It is unseemly to declare (as many in the Pentagon do) that spending on retiree care drains money away from vital weapons and threatens national defense. That would be true only if the Bush administration accepted an arbitrary ceiling on DOD spending. The remedy for a shortage of money for validated needs is to obtain more money, which the U.S. could easily do. As Condon pointed out, current defense spending consumes only 4 percent of the nation's GDP, a burden
    that is low by historic U.S. standards.
  • Brig. Gen. Elder Granger, a top DOD medical official, makes much of the fact that retirees in 1995 paid 27 percent of their own medical costs and today pay only 12 percent, largely because benefits have grown while fees have not changed. Yet the promise was for “free” treatment. The problem is not that retirees pay too little for care, but that they pay as much as they do.
  • Much of DOD's expenditure increase stems from Tricare For Life, the program for 65-and-over retirees, but all of the new Tricare fee increases apply only to younger beneficiaries, mostly in their 40s and 50s. Congress knew Tricare For Life would be a high-cost program. It is not fair and equitable to finance the program with fees extracted from under-65 retirees.

Let us stipulate that Rumsfeld has a very tough job to do. However, it does no one any good to pit retired military personnel who served honorably against those who now wear the uniform.

In the past, lawmakers have rejected similar efforts. They should do so again.

E-mail Robert S. Dudney, editor in chief of Air Force Magazine, at RDudney@AFA.org.