By Debbie Stevenson
Killeen Daily Herald
The Pentagon is denying claims it ordered its insurance contractors to begin setting up massive hikes in health care costs before gaining congressional approval.
U.S Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, said Wednesday that a top Pentagon health official told him a report in the Marine Times on the Bush administration's Tricare proposal for fiscal year 2007 was not accurate.
Edwards said the Pentagon official told him a plan was never in place to impose Tricare fee increases on military retirees by Oct. 1 without hearing from Congress.
Any proposals to increase fees or implement programs by the military or the Bush administration must first be approved by Congress during the defense budget process. Anticipating passage in a time of record federal deficits, advocate groups and congressmen have claimed confident Pentagon planners had ordered its health insurance contractors to begin preparing for the changes that could mean a doubling and even tripling of annual enrollment fees.
Julie Ice, director of legislative and public affairs for Humana Military Healthcare Services, the Fort Hood area Tricare contractor, said Thursday that her group had not received directives from the Pentagon.
"We have never gotten any direction from the DoD to implement them," Ice said.
However, if the hikes were to go into effect Oct. 1, Ice said Humana would need time to work on the changes.
"We recommend at least six months to make sure our systems are up to date and have the staff to be able to handle the beneficiary inquiries that may result from this increase," Ice said. "Based on what other changes have occurred over the years, that's generally a good estimate."
Faced with expanded benefits and a growing retiree population younger than 65, the Pentagon was hoping the increases would drive many veterans out of the system and trim about $32 billion from the military's health care bill by 2015.
Word of the Pentagon's planning for an October start date surfaced March 3, when House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and Ike Skelton, D-Mo., sent a joint letter to Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, opposing the increases.
"Circumventing congressional oversight by quickly implementing fundamental changes to a highly viable medical benefit is not keeping the promise to the sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines that serve our country," the congressmen stated in the letter.
"The committee believes that these proposals depend too exclusively on increasing cost shares and believes that no action should be taken in fiscal year 2007 until a full review of additional cost control options is completed," they wrote.
Edwards, Fort Hood's longtime congressman until the district was redrawn, and U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., went one step further, introducing a House resolution, dubbed the Military Retirees' Healthcare Protection Act, on March 15 to block the increases and require congressional oversight. The bill quickly attracted 77 co-sponsors and the support of 13 veterans' groups.
Edwards said Wednesday he believed the bill remained necessary, despite the Pentagon's denials that it had begun work on the hikes.
"I still strongly oppose the administration's proposals to dramatically hike fees for military retirees and will continue to work for passage of H.R. 4949, the Military Retirees' Healthcare Protection Act, but I respect the administration saying they seriously want to take input from members of Congress and military retirees on this important issue," Edwards said in a written statement.
Key Senate lawmakers also have signaled their opposition.
"That's obviously something I don't think is going to happen over a two-year period," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., chairman of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on personnel, during a March 14 hearing on the plan.
"To me, this is a long-term process," said Graham, who had initially backed the hikes.
The Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee has scheduled a hearing March 29 to review the proposals.
Contact Debbie Stevenson at firstname.lastname@example.org