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U.S. Military (Ret.): Tricare fee hikes seem likely

Apr. 7, 2011 - 04:19PM   |   Last Updated: Apr. 7, 2011 - 04:19PM  |  
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By now, most retirees and soon-to-be retirees have heard about the Defense Department's new push to increase Tricare health care fees.

And unlike DoD's campaigns for increases in 2007, 2008 and 2009, opposition is weakening as the military's medical budget continues to soar (more than $50 billion this year, and climbing).

Now that Tricare fee hikes seem to be turning into a case of "not if, but when," prudent contingency planning for your health care coverage assumes a new importance.

The debate starts with one undeniable fact: Out-of-pocket Tricare fees paid by beneficiaries have not risen one penny in the 16 years since the program was launched in 1995.

That's not to say the costs of that care haven't risen. That's the problem from the DoD perspective — the defense budget is shouldering an increasingly disproportionate share of the costs.

With private-sector health care costs spiraling upward, Tricare is one of the lowest-cost health coverage plans in the nation.

And defense officials say the costs of providing that care — particularly for the large number of "working age" retirees under 65, most of whom have other health care coverage available through civilian employers — is becoming increasingly unsustainable when stacked against the core military mission of preparing and maintaining the active-duty force to fight our nation's wars.

On the other side, retiree advocates say their health care benefit was a promise made to them by the government in return for serving a full career in uniform.

So where will we end up? Nothing's for sure yet, but I think it's increasingly unrealistic to expect Tricare fees to remain where they are for much longer.

The latest Pentagon proposals are more modest than plans from a few years ago, at least in the initial phase — a bump of about 13 percent next year in the annual enrollment fee for Tricare Prime for working-age retirees.

I think "modest" is the way to go there — it would be unfair to hit retirees with drastic cost increases all at once.

The big question is what happens after next year. The Pentagon plan has a vague call for indexing future increases to the "medical inflation" rate, which is generally higher than the overall national inflation rate.

Details are murky— and that's why retirees will need to make sure their voices are heard as this issue develops further.

Retired Command Master Chief Alex Keenan served 28 years in the Coast Guard. Email him at retired@militarytimes.com">retired@militarytimes.com.

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