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Col. Strobridge sparred in debate with Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, who said a congressional prohibition of TRICARE fee hikes would cause active duty end strength to be cut by 30,000 to 50,000 more troops than planned. The Surgeons General of the Army, Navy and Air Force also testified, but were not asked any questions about the TRICARE health fee increases.

“There are ways to make our defense health system more efficient besides raising health-care fees,” Col. Strobridge said. He particularly challenged defense and service leaders’ unwillingness to restructure the stove-piped military health-care system that includes three separate service systems and multiple contractors that now compete for budget share.

“In the 1990s, the services ardently resisted efforts to make them operate more jointly, but when Congress put a requirement in law, they did it. And now think joint operations are great. It should be the same way now with health care. “

Col. Strobridge said the Defense Department’s recent review of possible health system reforms made only minimal changes, in part because the decision process gave heavy weight to how hard a change would be. “So the first choice was to make retirees pay more, because it was easier.”

He called the proposed plan to means-test TRICARE fees based on the beneficiary’s retired pay amount patently discriminatory against the military.

“No other federal retiree has health benefits means-tested, and it’s rare in the civilian world,” he said. “Under that perverse system, the longer and more successfully you serve, the lower your health benefit.”

Further, he expressed MOAA’s strong objection to the proposal to index TRICARE fees to some measure of health cost growth.

“We believe the percentage increase in any year should not exceed the percentage growth in military retired pay,” Col. Strobridge said.

Finally, Col. Strobridge aggressively challenged the idea that military retirees should have their fees raised because they pay less for health care than civilians do.

“Whenever somebody gives me that argument,” Col. Strobridge said, “I ask them: If the military deal is so great, are you willing to pay what they did to earn it? Would you sign up to spend the next 20 to 30 years being deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan or any other garden spot the government wants to send you to? That’s the huge prepaid premium that’s overlooked when you only compare payments in cash.”

“The reality is that military people pay far greater premiums to earn their health care than any civilian ever has or ever will,” he said.

• The Department of Veterans Affairs has released the second in a series of annual reports from its Gulf War Veterans Illnesses Task Force, outlining how the department will address the concerns of veterans deployed during the Gulf War of 1990-1991. The report is available on the Internet at http://www.va.gov/opa/publications/2011_GWVI-TF_Report.pdf.

“This report, which considered input from nearly 500 veterans who responded to the draft report, provides a road map for our continued enhancements in the care and services we provide to Gulf War veterans,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki. “We will also apply lessons learned from this task force to our engagement with veterans of all eras.”

VA issued a draft version of this report for public comment on Oct. 21, 2011. During the 30-day comment period, VA received more than 450 comments through a special social media Website created for this purpose, along with 25 other comments received through mail, email and telephone calls.

Send letters to Sgt. Shaft, c/o John Fales, P.O. Box 65900, Washington, D.C. 20035-5900; fax 301/622-3330, call 202/257-5446 or email sgtshaft@bavf.org.