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Vet Groups See Budget Cuts as Broken Promise

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A series of benefit cuts and Tricare fee hikes for active duty service members and military retirees included in a new Pentagon budget brought swift reaction yesterday from veteran and military family advocates who see the proposals as a broken promise.

"As far as the American Legion is concerned, we feel that any changes made to a military retirees' benefit package is a breach of contract," said Joe Grassi, the American Legion's deputy director for national security. "Our reaction is that we go around and around with the administration on this issue all the time, and we feel that it's the wrong thing to do. It's the wrong answer."

The2015 budget proposal, released by the Pentagon on March 4, calls for an increase in out-of-pocket health care costs for active duty service members and retirees. The plan would scrap the current trio of available Tricare options in favor of one consolidated plan. Other portions of the proposal call for a decrease in Basic Allowance for Housing allotments for active duty families, an annual active duty pay raise cap of 1 percent, and cuts to the commissary that could force stores to raise their prices by about 20 percent. 

Those changes are part of the larger $495.6 billion budget package. The proposal includes a variety of other cuts including a steep reduction in troop levels across the military, especially the Army. And if sequestration continues in 2016, the Defense Department warned, the cuts will need to be even deeper.

"Increasing military family and retiree Tricare fees and copayments will not sit well on the force," said Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "We all understand the budget, the looming threat of a continuing sequester in 2016, and the need to regroup and modernize after more than a decade at war, but these actions hit people in the pocketbook, and that could influence individual health care decisions."

The problem with the benefits addressed in the budget proposal isn't so much with any one cut or cost increase, although portions of those are worrisome, said officials with the National Military Family Association. The major issue is the impact the combination will have on beneficiaries. 

"Put them all together and you're talking a big impact to the finances of especially our junior families," said Joyce Raezer, NMFA's executive director. "A little to a lot more for groceries, more for health care, less BAH; and what is the effect on military families' purchasing power? It's a negative effect."  

The changes to Tricare will have a particularly major impact on beneficiaries with disabilities, said one military family advocate. Currently, active duty families with disabled children, for example, regularly pay $1,000 a year out of pocket for care. Under the new proposal they will be forced to pay up to $5,000. 

"This is a huge increase for the families who, frankly, can least afford it," said Jeremy Hilton, an advocate for disabled military family members. "And then you're talking about doing this year after year … how is this reasonable?" 

NMFA officials joined a group of other advocacy groups March 5 for a private, two-hour teleconference briefing with DoD officials about the benefit changes presented in the 2015 budget proposal.

"We got a few answers, we asked a lot of questions," Raezer said.  "A lot of [these changes] are going to be very, very difficult to explain to anybody. And you know that our families are going to be doing the math on this and they are going to say here's what you're taking from me here, here's what you're taking from me there, here's what you're taking from me somewhere else -- and it's a lot."

Officials with the Military Officers Association of America said they are working on estimates on how much the changes are going to cost military families and veterans. They plan to release the bulk of that data at a virtual town hall meeting scheduled for the evening of March 6. 

"When you add all those [cuts] up, you're looking at almost $6,000 out of pocket for an O-3 and $5,000 for an E-5," said Mike Barron, MOAA's deputy director of government relations. "That's significant on a military family, it really is on their ability sustain their families."

Barron said his organization will push Congress to wait for the results of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission before making any benefit cut decisions. That panel was congressionally ordered to review the best options for making changes to military benefits as part of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act. They are expected to present their findings in February of next year.  

-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at amy.bushatz@monster.com.

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