By Debbie Stevenson
Killeen Daily Herald
Bowing to mounting criticism from veterans advocates and Congress, the Pen-tagon on Tuesday told its contractors to cancel plans to drastically hike health care costs for younger retirees in Oc-tober.
This is great news for military retirees, said U.S. Rep. Chet Ed-wards of Waco, the ranking Dem-ocrat on the Ap-propriations Sub-committee on Military Quality of Life and Veterans Affairs, in a statement Tuesday.
Edwards last week had co-sponsored House Resolution 4949, dubbed the Military Retirees Healthcare Protection Act, to block the increases in Tricare health care fees and costs for military retirees younger than 65 that had been sought by the Pentagon and Bush administration.
The hikes were planned for the federal 2007 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. Anticipating passage in a time of record federal deficits, the Pentagon had ordered its health insurance contractors to begin preparing for the changes.
Faced with expanded benefits and a growing population of retirees younger than 65, Pentagon planners were hoping the hikes would drive many veterans out of the system and trim an estimated $32 billion from the militarys health care bill by 2015.
If left unchecked, Pentagon officials warned the militarys health tab will balloon to $64 billion, or 8 percent of the defense budget, by 2015.
Similar hikes have been proposed in the past three budget years, only to be shot down by Congress amid heated opposition from active-duty and veterans advocacy groups.
Edwards said 13 associations representing military retirees backed his bill, which was co-introduced by U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C. The bill quickly attracted 77 co-sponsors and garnered the support, in principle, of U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, Fort Hoods congressman.
From the very beginning, I have been strongly against any proposedhikes in Tricare fees, Carter said in a statement Tuesday. I am very pleased that the Department of Defense has decided to hold off on increasing Tricare fees so we might have the opportunity to fully determine what changes are necessary to accommodate for increased health care costs.
I will continue to seek other avenues to cover the increased costs while allowing our active duty and retired military personnel to continue to receive affordable health care services.
Edwards said maintaining quality, affordable health care is the right thing to do.
It is right because our nation has a moral obligation to keep our promises to those who have kept their promise to defend our nation. It is the smart thing to do because we cannot attract the best and brightest to fight our war on terrorism in the years ahead if they see us breaking faith with those who served in years past, Edwards said.
To win the war on terrorism, we must keep faith with our warriors.
Pentagon planners have not given up on the hikes and have vigorously defended the proposal. However, fierce opposition made an Oct. 1 implementation date impossible.
It is just recognition of reality, Steve Strobridge of the Military Officers Association of America told the Marine Corps Times. The Department of Defense really didnt have a choice.
Edwards bill would require the Pentagon and White House to channel requests for future increases through Congress.
Conceding some savings have to be found, Edwards said his bill will remain on the floor.
We look forward to working with the Pentagon on our subcommittee to help find health care savings, but we intend to move forward with our legislation requiring congressional approval of any fee hikes in Tricare because we want to make sure that large hikes arent put in place right after the November elections, Edwards said.
Contact Debbie Stevenson at firstname.lastname@example.org