PANEL VOTES TO END PAY-BENEFIT SLIDE, TWEAK EX-SPOUSE LAW
With U.S. forces still at war and House members up for re-election in November, the House Armed Services Committee rejected almost every idea the Obama administration proposed in its 2017 budget request to dampen military compensation and apply dollars saved to other defense priorities.
The committee not only refused to force working-age retirees and family members to pay higher fees and co-pays for health care in 2018, it took the unusual step of making its pared-down packet of higher out-of-pocket costs apply primarily to future generations of service members.
As described here last week the committee already was primed to reject a fourth consecutive military pay raise cap and the deeper force drawdown sought by the department. But here are highlights of what the full committee also sent to the House floor on a final 60-to-2 vote:
Health Care Reform – The Defense Department had sought multi-year hikes in fees and co-payments to drive more patients, particularly non-medical retirees and their families, into managed care and military facilities.
The committee rejected most fee increases but agreed to streamline and narrow TRICARE options to a health maintenance organization (HMO) and preferred provider organization (PPO). The HMO would still be called TRICARE Prime. TRICARE Standard, the fee-for-service insurance option, would be renamed Preferred and its network of providers called a PPO.
For Prime users, enrollment fees won’t change except for annual increases to match the percentage rise of retiree cost-of-living adjustments. For Preferred (Standard) users, if the U.S. Comptroller General certifies in 2020 that ease of access and other quality gains have been reached, TRICARE could begin a $100 a year enrollment fee for singles and $200 for families. Otherwise fees or co-pays for current beneficiaries would be unchanged, including for elderly using TRICARE for Life with Medicare.
Preferred users would have to enroll annually in the PPO to help TRICARE better manage costs and resources. But only new entrants to the military on or after Jan. 1, 2018, would be subjected to slightly higher Prime and Preferred enrollment fees. Preferred deductibles and cost-shares would be higher still if beneficiaries decide to use non-network providers.
By Oct. 1, 2018, all military facilities and budgets would be managed by the Defense Health Agency rather than their services. And military treatment facilities would be required to provide urgent care until 11 p.m.
The Senate Armed Services Committee could decide to adopt health reforms nearer to what the Department of Defense proposed. The House committee plan to spare current forces and retirees most higher fees had some senior Democrats questioning its affordability with the 2011 Budget Control Act still set to resume a hard squeeze on future defense budgets.
Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, grumbled that TRICARE soon could be saddled with the complexity of administering “two fee structures for the next fifty years” for retirees.
His worry made for one advocate for retirees guffaw, noting that Congress voted last year created a fourth military retirement system, this one for new entrants after 2017 and younger current members who might be enticed to opt in and save the government even more money. On that matter, Congress didn’t wring its hands over new administrative burdens.
SSIA Extended – For 62,000 surviving spouses who have Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) payments reduced dollar for dollar by Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) from the VA, the committee voted to extend for one year a Special Survivor Indemnity Allowance. SSIA is intended to ease the impact of the SBP-DIC offset. It is set to climb to $310 a month in October and then sunset a year later. The committee voted to extend SSIA through fiscal 2018. The long-term goal is still to end the offset entirely, said Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.), who led markup of the bill’s personnel provisions.
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