Military panel warns of Tricare 'death spiral'

Members of a blue-ribbon commission on Wednesday pushed lawmakers in the House to take a hard look at their proposal for abolishing Tricare, the military’s health insurance plan.

The proposal, one of 15 recommendations recently unveiled by the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, has quickly become a source of fierce debate on Capitol Hill.

“Tricare is a broken program,” Commissioner Stephen Buyer told a subpanel of the House Armed Services Committee.

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Retired Adm. Edmund Giambastiani said Tricare is in a “death spiral” because the program has been “squeezed” in the name of efficiency, which has resulted in decreased access and fewer services.

The commission’s proposal would allow nearly 5 billion active-duty family members, soldiers in the reserve components and retirees who are not yet old enough to receive Medicare to leave the Tricare system and sign up for a private insurance plan.

Active-duty troops would still get care at medical treatment facilities.

Members of the blue-ribbon panel say Tricare lets down the troops because the coverage is only accepted at a small number of providers. Commissioner Christopher Carney said that when he was a reservist, his fellow soldiers nicknamed the current system “Try-to-find care.”

Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) said the “900-pound Gorilla in the room” is that family members are concerned about choosing healthcare from a menu of private providers, especially when they have heard so many negative things about the Affordable Care Act, commonly called ObamaCare.

To them, he said, "the devil you know is better than the one you don’t.”

Buyer said lawmakers would “receive pressure from across the river” — meaning the Defense Department — and from military and veteran associations to steer clear of changing Tricare.

“Don’t get sucked into the status quo,” said Buyer, a former Republican member of the House from Indiana who served as chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Buyer warned lawmakers that when they present the recommendations to their constituents there will always be "gargoyles who defend the muck."

"Being the agent of change is never fun," he said.