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McCain: Tricare fees must rise to control costs

Nov. 17, 2011 - 01:10PM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 17, 2011 - 01:10PM  |  
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Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Thursday that "dire circumstances" are the reason he's willing to make military retirees pay more for health care benefits.

McCain, a decorated Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war who is the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has drawn fire from retirees because of his suggestion that they can pay more for Tricare health coverage for themselves and their families.

"Military retirees and their families deserve the best possible care in return for a career of military service, and nothing less," McCain said on the Senate floor during debate on the $526 billion defense authorization bill for fiscal 2012.

"But we cannot ignore the fact that health care costs will undermine the combat capability and training and readiness of our military if we don't begin to control the cost growth now," he said.

"I am solemnly aware of the commitment this nation has made to the men and women who have served in the military regarding health care and benefits. This nation has made promises for many years and has endeavored to keep those promises. We are faced with a set of dire circumstances regarding the long term viability of entitlement programs that threatens to undermine a whole range of promises we have made to every American," he said.

The defense bill being debated by the Senate includes two provisions to hold down health care costs, and McCain said he wished it did more.

The bill trims $330 million off the $16.4 billion account to cover private-sector care for family members and retirees, a reduction made when the armed services committee voted Nov. 15 to cut an additional $21 billion from the version of the defense bill it had approved earlier this year.

The bill also allows the Defense Department to increase Tricare Prime enrollment fees in the future, but caps the increases at the rate of annual cost-of-living adjustments in military retired pay.

"This is the first step and important progress in helping the Department of Defense control spiraling health care costs. But, as with other challenges we faced in this bill, we could have and should have done more," McCain said.

Separately, McCain has proposed barring military retirees from enrolling at all in Tricare Prime — the health plan with the lowest out-of-pocket costs for most retirees — while also supporting the creation of a $200 enrollment fee for Medicare-eligible retirees using the Tricare for Life benefit and an increase in copayments for prescription drugs.

McCain's views have drawn sharp criticism. In a Nov. 16 letter, retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Jack Klimp, president of the National Association for Uniformed Services, expressed "deep disappointment" in McCain's views.

"Certainly, Tricare costs have increased in recent years. We have, after all, been at war for more than a decade," Klimp said, predicting costs will decline as the number of people in the military shrinks when U.S. troops withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Caring for our casualties, the moral responsibility, most certainly, helped drive up costs," Klimp said.

But he added that at the same time senior military leaders were complaining about skyrocketing health care costs, some lawmakers were diverting Tricare funds to pay for military medical research.

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