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At Senate hearing, military health care gets scrutiny

WASHINGTON — For a fleeting moment, at least, lawmakers seemed to be coming around to the idea that the Pentagon benefits system has its limits.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday that legislators’ continued pushback against Pentagon requests for modest Tricare fee and copay increases for working-age retirees will put DOD in a financial bind in coming years. And, legislators seemed inclined to listen.

“We’re not going to fight our enemies with a good health care plan,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., asked Hagel and Dempsey whether they have started communication efforts with veterans — a segment of society heavily invested in military success, he said — to explain that rising military benefit costs and falling defense budgets could leave future troops without adequate equipment or training.

Both answered yes, and DOD Comptroller Robert Hale laid out an estimate of how much money DOD hopes to recoup from higher health care costs for Tricare members.

“We’re going to keep Tricare generous,” he said. “By 2018, our proposals save $2.5 billion in that year alone. If we don’t do that, and we have to, say, cut forces to offset it, it’s about 25,000 troops. We need to slow the growth.”

Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, urged the DOD officials to consider filing a supplemental budget request to help cover $8 billion in unexpected war costs. Doing so could reduce the need for furloughs of defense civilians, she suggested.

The furloughs, due to begin July 8, will save $1.8 billion, officials have said.

“There is a direct link between the unexpected unfunded war costs and the furloughs because they are funded from the same accounts – the readiness accounts,” Collins said.

But Hagel said there has been no discussion of a supplemental war funding request.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., criticized the DOD’s heavy reliance on civilian contract workers, citing studies that suggests contractors cost two to three times as much as DOD civilians, who have labored under pay and hiring freezes recently. Government officials in the past have argued that contractors save money in the long term because they are not owed retirement and health care benefits.

Durbin lamented “a sense of disdain toward civilian DOD employees and sense of benign neglect toward contract employees.”

Carroll.chris@stripes.com
Twitter: @ChrisCarroll

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