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Military retirees under 65 learned this month that they might face sharply higher health care costs under a plan by senior Defense officials that would at least double Tricare fees by 2008, and tie future fee increases to the annual percentage rise in health care costs nationwide.

Hundreds of retirees, upset by the news, are sending e-mails to this columnist and posting angry comments on various Internet sites, contrasting the changes now proposed to past promises of free lifetime health care if they stayed long enough to retire.

It’s an echo of complaints heard in the mid-1990s from an older generation of retirees as they were being turned away from military hospitals and advised to use Medicare and buy supplemental insurance to meet their medical needs. The groundswell of complaints at the time led to lawsuits, a grass-roots effort to restore promised benefits, aggressive lobbying by service associations and, finally, votes in Congress in 2000 to establish Tricare for Life and Tricare Senior Pharmacy for 1.5 million elderly retirees as well as spouses and survivors.

The situation is different for younger retirees. It is true that, just 15 years ago, some recruiters still were promising free lifetime care. In 1999, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army Gen. Hugh Shelton, gave Congress quotes from a 1991 Army recruiting brochure, promising “superb health care … for the rest of your life if you serve a minimum of 20 years.”

Still the number of under-65 retirees now citing promises of free health care is surprising, for two reasons.

One, most of these retirees, unlike the older generation, have not been receiving free health care. They either are enrolled in Tricare Prime, a managed-care plan that collects an annual fee and co-payments for doctor visits, or they use Tricare Standard, the fee-for-service option, which carries a deductible and patients also pay a hefty cost-share of any services received.

Second is the history of recent court battles in which the older generation of retirees lost that argument.

Coincidentally, the lawyer and war hero who led the legal fight, retired Air Force Col. George “Bud” Day, announced this month that he and his grass-roots volunteers, who created Class Act Group to raise funds for the court challenge, are laying down their swords effective Dec. 31.

Reached by phone at his law office in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., Day said retirees 65 and older “got about 95 percent” of medical benefits they had sought, but the gains weren’t won in court. Instead, the case helped to influence Congress to correct an injustice to elderly beneficiaries by enacting Tricare for Life and the Tricare Senior Pharmacy plan.

The lawsuit, Schism and Reinlie v. U.S., was decided Nov. 18, 2002, by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington. The court acknowledged “moral claims” by retirees to free lifetime health care but found no law or service regulation had authorized free, unconditional medical care. If recruiters promised that, even if ordered to do so by service leaders, the promises were invalid because they were not backed by law.

In June 2003, the Supreme Court declined to review the decision.

Day had explained while shaping his case that claims to lifetime care from retirees who entered service on or after June 7, 1956, were weaker because of a law signed that day that made access to service medical care conditional for retirees based on available space in military hospitals.

“Congress — and only Congress — can authorize [lifetime medical] benefits,” wrote the court. Yet it never had. In June 2003, the Supreme Court declined to review the decision.

During its last two years, Class Act turned to lobbying Congress to pass the Keep Our Promise to America’s Military Retirees Act (HR 602), which would waive Medicare Part B premiums, bringing these older retirees nearer to the promise of free lifetime health care.

For younger retirees, HR 602 would make them eligible for the menu of health care plans allowed federal civilian employees under the Federal Employees Health Benefit Plan. The Defense Department would pick up costs normally covered by Tricare Standard. Assuming that 25 percent of under-65 retirees shifted to the FEHBP, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the bill’s cost at $2 billion in direct spending the first year.

After hurricanes ravaged the Gulf Coast, Day said he visited Congress and “ran a trap line” on prospects for passage of HR 602. Members told him they weren’t good, given the cost of Katrina and the war in Iraq. Day and his staff therefore voted to close down Class Act. Also, Day said, retiree contributions to Class Act had slowed.

“I think people have gotten used to the idea that they are going to have to pay Medicare Part B premiums,” he said. Volunteers also were tired and satisfied with what they achieved in helping to persuade Congress to adopt Tricare for Life and the senior drug benefit.

Day, 80 and a Medal of Honor recipient, said he will leave to others the fight ahead for younger retirees.

“Frankly, if I were a [younger] military guy I would be a little unhappy … a little stirred up” about the proposed Tricare fees, he said.

They are. But they also know, thanks to Day, what the courts will say.

To comment, write Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA 20120-1111, e-mail milupdate@aol.com or visit www.militaryupdate.com.

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