House, Senate duck reforms on military healthcare

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House and Senate lawmakers are ducking major reforms to Tricare, the military’s healthcare program.

While they aren’t completely ruling out reforms for the program before the end of 2015, most say the issue needs to be studied more before any changes are approved.

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“There’s no doubt Tricare needs improvement,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas). “But especially on something as interrelated and complicated as healthcare, you want to understand the consequences.”

Both draft policy bills written by the House and Senate Armed Services panels contain suggested reforms, including a military retirement overhaul.

But they largely avoid the issue of Tricare, despite recommendations from a blue-ribbon panel that looked at possible reforms.

The Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission suggested replacing Tricare with a new system that would allow nearly 5 million family members of active-duty service members, reserve soldiers and military retirees not old enough to receive Medicare, to leave the Tricare system and sign up for a private insurance plan.

Tricare has come under fire for offering a small network of providers that give beneficiaries limited options.

House members say their bill does not include the recommendation because it came too late.

The commission announced its recommendations in January, and the panel had already started working on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

“By the time the commission came out with its report ahead of the NDAA, there was just not enough time to fully dive into the issues surrounding Tricare,” Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.), chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, told The Hill.

Heck said his subcommittee would take it back up “through the summer and the fall,” a prediction echoed by Thornberry.

The Tricare overhaul, combined with 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 the panel’s estimates.

While the House NDAA, which passed through the chamber Friday, gave lawmakers their best opportunity to overhaul the medical network, Heck argued that they will have another chance to incorporate the commission’s recommendations when Tricare solicits new contracts later this year.

In the Senate, the Armed Services Committee rolled out a draft bill last week that contained tweaks to Tricare pharmacy fees and preauthorizations. It also called on the Pentagon to issue information about access to care and give numerous reports on the status of its health facilities.

But it avoided more massive reforms.

“The big healthcare nut has not been cracked yet,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on personnel, conceded.

“We’re trying to move [Tricare] in a new direction slowly, but eventually reform has to occur because the current system is unsustainable,” he added.

Graham said there might be some pilot programs over the next year, but any major revamp would have to wait until next year’s defense policy road map.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) also urged caution for now “because of the opposition to it.”

“We’ve got to do the possible,” McCain said.

He also disagreed with House members who say reforms could come later this year.

“I don’t think it’s going to be this year. I really don’t. I wish it were, but you’ve got to have consensus, and we don’t have consensus,” he said.

Heck, a former physician and an Iraq War veteran who has been on both sides of the Tricare program, said waiting another year might not be the worst plan.

“I don’t necessarily agree that it’s in as bad a shape as people say it is. It certainly needs improvement,” he said. “We’ll try to do something in the short term while we look at a more comprehensive solution to the defense health issues.”