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Obama Urges Congress to Support Tricare Fees

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On Monday the White House pressed the Pentagon to rein in Tricare costs and begin a new round of base closings as the Senate took up the National Defense Authorization Act on the military’s 2014 budget.

There are a number of areas of agreement with the initial markup of the Senate Armed Services Committee on the NDAA, but the administration "has serious concerns with certain provisions," Office of Management and Budget officials said in a lengthy response to the markup.

OMB called on SASC to control Tricare costs at the Department of Defense "while keeping retired beneficiaries' share of these costs well below the levels experienced when the Tricare program was implemented in the mid-1990s."

Slowing the growth of Tricare costs would result in savings of $902 million in fiscal year 2014 and $9.3 billion through fiscal year 2018. Those savings were needed to offset projected increases in personnel costs, OMB said.

President Obama has proposed slowing this growth by introducing a new set of enrollment fees and higher co-pays to retirees under the age of 65. 

The Pentagon proposed an annual enrollment fee based on a percentage of retired pay for Medicare-eligible retirees in the Tricare For Life Program. Working age retirees in the Tricare Standard and Tricare Extra programs also would face new annual enrollment fees phased in over five years.

The White House also proposed an increase to the current enrollment fee for working age retirees in the Tricare Prime program phased in over the next four years. 

As for co-pays, the White House has proposed increasing Tricare Prime co-pays for retirees and their beneficiaries by $4 for medical visits not related to mental health.

Pentagon leaders have said that spiral personnel costs to include healthcare are eating up too much of the military's annual budgets and putting training and readiness missions at risk.

"Without serious attempts to achieve significant savings in this area, which consumes roughly half of the DoD budget and is increasing every year, we risk becoming an unbalanced force," Hagel said.

The official Statement of Administration Policy in response to the initial Senate markup wasn't limited to Tricare. OMB officials also "strongly objected" to the markup's proposal for a major review of the infrastructure at overseas facilities before considering another round of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission procedure for bases in the U.S.

"Without authorization for a new round of BRAC, DoD may not properly align the military's infrastructure with the needs of the evolving force structure, which is critical to ensuring that limited resources are available for the highest priorities of the Armed Forces," the OMB statement said.

The administration objected to several other provisions in the markup while commending the Committee for working to offer stronger protections for sexual assault victims in the ranks.

The SASC markup would amend Article 60 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice to limit the authority of a convening authority to modify the findings of a court-martial on specified sexual offenses, and also require automatic higher-level review of any decision by a commander not to prosecute a sexual assault allegation.

However, the markup would not take sexual assault cases and other major crimes out of the chain of command as proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. Gillibrand's proposed amendment to the NDAA on stripping commanders of their courts martial authority was expected to be debated later this week.

In introducing the markup, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the SASC chairman, said the "bipartisan bill provides for our nation's defense and upholds our obligations to our men and women in uniform and their families."

Levin, who opposes the Gillibrand amendment, said "an important part of keeping faith with servicemembers is addressing the plague of sexual assaults in our military, and the bill includes the strongest, most effective approach to combating sexual assault."

The SASC markup authorizes an FY2014 active duty end strength for the Army of 520,000; the Navy, 323,600; the Marine Corps, 190,200; and the Air Force, 327,600.

The Committee also authorized a one percent across-the-board pay raise for all members of the uniformed services in fiscal year 2014, a proposal backed by OMB.

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Richard Sisk TRICARE
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