As military leaders look to reduce personnel costs related to health care, Congress agreed to throw out a plan to introduce new Tricare enrollment fees that Pentagon and White House officials inserted into the 2014 defense budget.
Military healthcare costs climbed from $19 billion in 2001 to $49.4 billion requested for next year; and even that amount presupposes about $900 million in savings from proposals that would have retirees kick in a bit more for Tricare.
"If left unchecked, pay and benefits will continue to eat into our readiness and modernization. That could result in a far less capable force that is well-compensated, but poorly trained and poorly equipped," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in July, when he outlined some of the findings in a Strategic Choices and Management Review.
Hagel's view is shared by the White House and the service chiefs, each of whom has testified before Congress about the ever-increasing costs associated with payroll, benefits and healthcare.
Under the DoD plan, annual enrollment fees would be based on a percentage of retired pay for Medicare-eligible retirees in Tricare for Life. Also, working age retirees in the Tricare Standard and Tricare Extra programs would also see new annual enrollment fees phased in over five years.
Additionally, the White House proposed increasing Tricare Prime co-pays by $4 for retirees and their beneficiaries for medical visits not related to mental health.
By throwing out any new increases, the House Armed Services Committee said its members believe retirees' access to quality healthcare services is "a benefit earned through prior service to our nation."
"Mindful of Congress' commitment to servicemembers and their families, and endorsing the bi-partisan work of the military personnel subcommittee, the [National Defense Authorization Act] once again rejects all administration proposals to increase Tricare fees or establish new ... fees."
Any kind of cuts in retirement benefits, including even minor increases to Tricare monthly premiums, have been staunchly opposed by veterans' service organizations such as Disabled American Veterans, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.
"We have been down this road before," American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger said last month. "While we appreciate fiscal realities and acknowledge White House and Pentagon concerns about what they term 'spiraling personnel costs,' we remain steadfast in our belief that economies should not be made at the expense of those who have already sacrificed much for our country."