Spurred by Gates, Congress May Consider Overhauling Military Health Care

Corrected May 5, 2009 – 5:34 p.m

By Josh Rogin, CQ Staff

For the first time in years, Congress and the Defense Department may be ready to reach a compromise on how to overhaul the military health care system, the fastest-growing portion of the defense budget. The negotiations will play out during the formation of the fiscal 2010 defense authorization and appropriations bills and could include an updated fee structure for the more than 9 million users of the military’s Tricare system, as well as continued congressional overhaul efforts.

The Pentagon has long advocated for increases in Tricare fees and co-payments. But Congress has repeatedly rebuffed those politically unpopular initiatives. With military health care costs spiraling upward and placing increased pressure on other parts of the Pentagon’s budget, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is hoping to persuade Congress to look again at raising fees.

“Health care is eating the department alive,” Gates told an audience at Alabama’s Maxwell Air Force Base on April 15, adding that the department will spend $47 billion on health care in fiscal 2010. “Part of the problem is, we cannot get any relief from the Congress in terms of increasing either co-pays or the premiums.”  During each of the last three years of the Bush administration, the Pentagon tried to raise those fees and co-payments. It assumed huge budget savings — $1.2 billion in fiscal 2009 — but Congress rejected the payment increases and added the difference back into the defense budget each time.

This year, Gates plans to fund Tricare fully in the fiscal 2010 budget request and over the course of the budget cycle try to convince Congress of the need to raise fees and co-payments.



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