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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Location: Douglas, Coffee Co., The Other Georgia, United States

Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Former Secretary of Defense and former CIA director Robert Gates and topic of: Cliff Talks Avoid Military Health Plan - Tricare's Costs Have Grown Sharply, but Potential Savings Aren't on Table; Veterans Resist Calls to Carry Heavier Burden

Reading the below article this morning that mentions Secretary Robert Gates made me wonder if I might hear this topic on the evening of February 2.

Last night a friend gave Sally and me tickets to hear Secretary Gates at the Florida Theater in Jacksonville, Florida, as part of something called the Florida Forum Series. This series seeks to bring some of the world's most widely known public figures to Jacksonville, with the series benefiting Wolfson Children's Hospital.

On February 2 former Secretary of Defense and former CIA director Dr. Robert M. Gates will be the featured lectuerer and guest. Considered “The Soldier’s Secretary” for his commitment to placing the men and women in uniform as his top priority, I couldn't help but wonder if I might hear his observation noted in the below article conveyed on February 2.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Washington's budget negotiators are considering cost-saving changes in the nation's entitlement programs, with one notable exception: military health care.

Like the rest of the U.S. health system, the military's program, known as Tricare, has a cost problem. For years, the Pentagon has sought to raise fees and revamp the system, with successive Defense secretaries warning that the program, if left unchecked, would eat into the rest of the military budget.

Pentagon overhaul efforts, however, have been rejected repeatedly by Congress, where there is broad, bipartisan opposition to raising health-care costs for America's military. And in the current round of budget talks, which are aimed at averting January's tax increases and spending cuts, no one has yet suggested helping to cut the deficit with the billions that could potentially be saved by making changes to Tricare.

"It's a third rail for both parties," said Todd Harrison, a defense specialist at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan think tank with close ties to the Pentagon.

Under the military health plans, 10 million people—active military, veterans and their families—pay a fraction of the fees most Americans pay for care. In 2011, retirees and families enrolled in the basic military health-care program paid an average of $880 in annual copayments and fees, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Most American families in employer-provider health plans paid an average of nearly $5,000.

For 15 years until this year, the enrollment fee for Tricare's health-maintenance-organization plan was fixed at $230 for individuals and $460 for families. That has helped drive up the program's budget from $19 billion in 2001 to $51 billion this year. Without changes, the Congressional Budget Office said, that number will hit $65 billion in five years and $77 billion by 2022.

Two years ago, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that "heath-care costs are eating the Defense Department alive."

This year, the administration pushed for changes including higher enrollment fees that could save $1.8 billion next fiscal year and nearly $13 billion by 2018. Congressional committees have moved to block the changes, though the administration succeeded in raising the annual family enrollment fee to $520.

Veterans groups have sent more than 110,000 messages to the nation's leaders, urging them to shield military retirees from shouldering more costs in talks for any "grand bargain" on the deficit, said Steve Strobridge, director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America.

He also said Mr. Gates's fears are overstated, noting the Pentagon's health-care budget ended the past two years with a small surplus. The system accounts for about 11% of the defense budget, Mr. Strobridge said. "There is a value to [veterans'] service and sacrifice…that we won't allow to be discounted by people who only want to account for what they pay in cash," he said.

This year, the association has supported small increases in copayments for drugs, but it opposed the larger fee increases sought by the administration.

Mr. Harrison, the defense budget analyst, said the Pentagon, like the nation as a whole, has to get a handle on rising health-care costs or risk seeing the military shrink instead.

"There aren't easy options here, but when you think about it in the larger context of the defense budget, you're going to have to make some tough decisions," he said.

Some veterans say military health-care benefits should be scrutinized, but they resist shouldering more costs to reduce the nation's budget woes.

Brandon Friedman, a U.S. Army officer who was awarded two Bronze Stars for his service in Afghanistan and Iraq, said many veterans could be persuaded they needed to pay a few pennies more to help their government out of its fiscal crisis. But he chafed at the notion that the government would ask veterans to sacrifice if it doesn't find other ways to deal with the nation's deficit.

"After a decade of war, you asked people to serve their country and repeatedly deploy and risk their lives, and then you say: Sorry, we're out of money?" he said. "I just don't think that's fair."

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