In the battle on Capitol Hill over federal spending cuts, one targeted group poses a particular quandary for Republicans and Democrats alike: working-age military veterans.
Many are enrolled in Tricare Prime, the Pentagon's managed health care program for retired service members. Since Tricare began 15 years ago, its beneficiaries have never had a hike in premiums. They pay $460 a year — about one-tenth what other federal employees pay.
Now the Pentagon says it's time for a change.
An 'Unsustainable' Arrangement
Defense Secretary Robert Gates went to Capitol Hill last month to make the case for boosting the fees. Something has to be done about the Pentagon's annual health care costs, he argued, noting that they've more than doubled over the past decade to $52.5 billion. Gates said the fee for Tricare Prime family coverage should be raised to $520 a year — an increase of $5 a month.
"I understand that any change to these kinds of benefits prompts vigorous political opposition," Gates said. "But let us be clear: The current Tricare arrangement, one in which fees have not increased for 15 years, is simply unsustainable."
In recent years, Congress has rejected Pentagon requests for far heftier hikes in Tricare premiums. But Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin says he's not ruling out what Gates wants this time.
"I think we have to consider that request, because it not only comes from Secretary Gates, but because I believe it has the support of the top military leaders that are uniformed leaders in this country," Levin said.
Only lawmakers can stop a fee hike. The matter will most likely be decided later this year, in Congress' annual defense authorization bill.
'A Breach Of Moral Contract'
On Wednesday morning, a House Armed Services panel grappled with the Tricare fee question. The seven witnesses testifying all represented retired military members and their families. Ranking Democrat Susan Davis of California seemed to be preparing them for bad news.
"As you all know, our country is facing difficult economic times," she said, "and we are now faced with making some hard decisions that will, that could, impact the lives of those who are currently serving and those who have served."
But one witness reminded Davis that the nation has been at war for nearly a decade.
"The blame for the dramatic rise in military health care costs is the war, not the retiree," said Rick Jones of the National Association for Uniformed Services. He called the proposed fee increase a Trojan horse meant to carry in indexed fee hikes every year for veterans.
"The simple fact is that these men and women earned a retirement benefit, and they actually look forward to using it," Jones said. "It's a breach of moral contract to stunt that promise that's been made to these folks."
Steve Strobridge of the Military Officers Association of America said that while the premiums for Tricare are relatively low, the health care provided is a form of delayed payment for military service.
"We think it's very important to have some statement in law, where there is none now, that states explicitly that military health care is one of the crucial offsets to the adverse conditions of service," he said. "That it is, in fact, an upfront and very substantial premium payment."
Those arguments appeared to carry the day for at least some on the committee, including retired Army Lt. Col. Allen West, a freshman Republican from Florida.
"When I sit here today, I think about a quote from George Washington, and I'm paraphrasing, when he said that future generations of a nation will judge itself based upon how well we treat our veterans."
Still, when the hearing ended, Kathy Moakler of the National Military Family Association said she was not counting on Congress to do what it has done before: reject the Pentagon's proposed increase for Tricare.
"They could address it by saying, once again, no, we're not going to allow an increase to fees at this time," she said. "But in a time of austere budgets, we don't think that that's going to be the case."