Defense

Lawmakers debate scrapping Tricare

Members of Congress are taking a serious look at abolishing Tricare, the insurance option provided to members of the military and their families.

The future of the program became a hot topic on Capitol Hill after a blue-ribbon panel released a series of recommendations for changing the way the military compensates service members.

{mosads}One of the recommendations was replacing Tricare with a new system that allows members of the military to choose a private insurance plan, with the cost of premiums shouldered by the government.

While lawmakers have in the past shied away from major changes to pay and compensation for troops, lawmakers are say the idea deserves serious consideration.

“Tricare’s eliminating itself. We’re going to replace Tricare with more choice,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on personnel.

Graham said he’s seen “a lot support growing among the active ranks and, hopefully, Guard, Reserve and retirement community” for replacing Tricare.

Members of the House and Senate Armed Services panels are holding separate hearings Wednesday to examine the Tricare idea, along with the 14 other recommendations from the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission.

“Healthcare is one of the most complex areas we deal with, so taking some time to try and study the effects of a change in healthcare is, to me, the biggest challenge ahead of us as we look at these recommendations,” House Armed Services
Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) told reporters last week.

Established in 1993, Tricare operates much like a private insurance plan, with military families using the coverage at pre-approved hospitals and treatment centers. An estimated 10 million people are enrolled.

But while Tricare mimics a private insurance plan, it has come under fire for providing a small network of providers that gives beneficiaries limited options. A private insurance plan, in comparison, is often accepted at hundreds of places.

Under the commission’s proposal for replacing Tricare, active-duty family members, those in the Reserves and retired service members would have a menu of commercial plans from which to choose.

Active-duty family members would be reimbursed through a new basic allowance for healthcare, while service members would continue to receive care from military treatment facilities. Retirees would retain Tricare for Life, a program that covers the medical costs that Medicare doesn’t.

The Tricare overhaul, combined with several other healthcare changes suggested by the commission, could save the Defense Department about $26.5 billion from fiscal 2016 to fiscal 2020 and generate $6.7 billion per year in savings by 2053, according to a panel spokesman.

Excluding active-duty troops, the Tricare revamp would impact 4.7 million people, he said.

Thus far, military members and their families have been “very cautious” about the commission’s ideas, said Kathy Beasley, deputy director of Government Relations at Military Officers Association of America.

The group, which is part of The Military Coalition, a network of 32 military, veterans and uniformed services organizations, last week sent surveys to its 163,000 members to garner feedback on all of the commission’s proposals.

Beasley said initial feedback has centered on concerns that the commission didn’t look closely enough at ways to improve the existing Tricare system, including possibly altering how it pays providers or eliminating bureaucratic overhead.

Military families are also worried commercial providers might lack the knowhow to handle their unique needs, she said.

“Would a service member who’s down-range worry about his family picking the wrong plan?” Beasley asked.

Beasley said that she hoped lawmakers recognize that codifying the recommendations into law “isn’t a slam dunk” and urged them to take time to scrutinize how the proposals would be implemented.

She said Congress should take a “pragmatic approach” to executing any recommendations, such as starting pilot programs to determine which might prove successful.

It’s unclear when lawmakers might move to enact the commission’s proposals.

Thornberry said the panel’s personnel subcommittee, and possibly others, would “take on the bulk” of the work of crafting legislation.

“I guess I have assumed that maybe some of it could be done relatively quickly, and others would require more study,” he said, though the commissioners have warned against taking a piecemeal approach.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the odds of the proposals being incorporated into legislation depend on the results of the personnel subcommittee hearings being held.

Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), the full committee’s top Democrat, said the recommendations could make their way into the chamber’s version of the annual defense authorization bill, which is usually unveiled in the summer.

He said any Tricare replacement would have to be an “improvement” over the current system and enhance retention and recruitment in the military branches.

 

“There’s a whole series of issues that we’re going to have to measure it against,” Reed said.

Tags Jack Reed John McCain Lindsey Graham TRICARE

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