Older military retirees set to get health insurance back
By DALE EISMAN
(c) 2000, The Virginian-Pilot
WASHINGTON -- Key lawmakers apparently have agreed on a $42
billion election year present for more than 1 million older military
retirees and their spouses, backing legislation to restore to the
former career service members the health insurance coverage they
lost when they turned 65.
Lobbyists and legislative aides said Friday that House-Senate
conferees making final adjustments to the Pentagon's budget for
2001 will recommend that Tricare, the military's health insurance
program, be used to supplement coverage provided to the senior
retirees under Medicare.
The coverage would be provided at no extra charge, the lobbyists
said; the military retirees would continue to pay the $45 monthly
premium that now goes with their Medicare ``Part B'' plans,
It is unclear how many military retirees in Hampton Roads would
be affected. The Navy estimates that there were 33,000 Navy and
Marine Corps retirees and survivors in the area in 1999 -- but there
is no breakdown on the other services or how many of the retirees
are 65 or older.
Military retiree groups nationwide have been lobbying for more,
arguing that generations of service members were promised free
care for life if they would stay in uniform for at least 20 years.
``I don't think we're going to be happy with it at all,'' Paul Hamaker,
a prominent Hampton Roads retiree activist, said Friday of the
But other retiree advocates were upbeat about the plan. The
Retired Officers Association sent members an e-mail message
Friday outlining key portions of the deal and praising Virginia Sen.
John W. Warner, its principal architect.
Association lobbyist Paul Arcari in August called the plan ``the 93
percent solution'' to filling gaps in retiree health care, noting that 93
percent of health care providers nationwide accept Medicare
Warner met privately on Wednesday with around two dozen
representatives of the Military Coalition, an amalgam of retiree
groups. He apparently agreed to support provisions that would
close what some of the groups saw as potential problems in the
plan he pushed through the Senate in July.
In particular, said one person familiar with the discussion, Warner
agreed to push for legislative language guaranteeing a
``coordination of benefits'' between Medicare and Tricare. That
would assure that Tricare would cover medical expenses up to the
maximum permitted by law.
Medicare often pays less than that limit and some retiree
advocates had worried that the Pentagon accountants would block
Tricare payments for additional charges.
The conferees' final report is expected to be released next week.
Several people familiar with its drafting cautioned that the military
retiree benefit could be tweaked in late negotiations among the four
most-senior members of the Senate and House Armed Services
Warner, the Senate committee's chairman, said he was
``optimistic'' about the health care plan's prospects.
Less certain is how the plan will be received at the White House.
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen sent lawmakers a letter last
month cautioning them to ``proceed with caution'' and avoid
``mandating new unfunded benefits.''
The bill is drafted to sidestep budget guidelines that limit additional
spending on military health care to $400 million over the next five
years. Mandatory charges in the plan will exhaust that sum in just
two years, but Warner is said to have assured retiree advocates
that he will press President Clinton's successor to make the
additional benefits permanent by adjusting the overall defense
Both Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush
have promised as president to push for substantial increases in
defense spending, though neither has outlined a plan for defense
Warner's committee will have to confirm the new president's choice
for defense secretary, giving the Virginia Republican considerable
leverage in securing commitments for long-term funding.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that Warner's plan will
cost $42 billion over 10 years.
Despite its hefty price tag, the plan is only about half as expensive
as a House bill that would extend to military retirees the same
coverage available to federal civilian retirees.
Edith Smith of Springfield, the widow of a career Marine and for the
last decade an unpaid lobbyist on military retiree issues, noted
Friday that the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan gives
civilian workers the right to choose from a smorgasbord of
commercial insurance programs.
Tricare, by contrast, is run by insurers who contract with the
Pentagon to be the military's exclusive health insurer in particular
``If we don't want to expand government, why are we keeping the
Defense Department in the insurance business?'' Smith asked.
Military retirees currently are forced out of Tricare and into the
Medicare program when they turn 65. Those who live near military
medical facilities, such as the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth,
can continue to seek free care at those hospitals and clinics but
are served only on a ``space available'' basis, meaning that active
duty families and younger retirees get help first, and in some cases
retirees are denied care altogether.
Gaps in Medicare coverage those retirees use to pay for care from
civilian providers have forced most retirees to seek supplemental
insurance on the commercial market.
Groups such as the Retired Officers and the Retired Enlisted
Association sell supplemental policies to their members.
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