- The Washington Times - Monday, December 20, 1999

The Pentagon and some prominent members of Congress have agreed next year to begin revamping a military health care system afflicted by long waiting lines and an exodus of top doctors, military officials say.
One senator has called for a $5 billion defense spending increase in fiscal 2001, which begins Oct. 1, including more money for medical benefits.
“We can no longer squeeze blood from this stone,” Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, told President Clinton in a recent letter.
Senior defense officials and congressional aides met at the Pentagon on the issue Dec. 13, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff followed up with their own session on Wednesday. Military sources said a consensus was reached to reform the health system, known as Tricare.
“It is certainly in the sights of the chairman and the service chiefs for the year ahead,” said Capt. Stephen Pietropaoli, spokesman for Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “because we see it has having a direct effect on our overall readiness based upon retention and recruiting… . There’s no clear plan on this yet. We’re working closely with the secretary of defense.”
Congressional aides say they hope to push the health care debate early next year in the same way Congress quickly moved in January 1999 to raise pay in the largest military benefits increase since 1981.
“We want health care to be the first bill enacted next year,” said one aide. “It is probably the No. 1 issue facing the military right now because it is affecting recruiting and retention.”
The department provides care for some 8 million beneficiaries, including 1.4 million active-duty troops, 1.8 million retirees and their dependents. In recent years, Congress and the Pentagon have fielded an increasing number of complaints about delays in getting doctors’ appointments and the lack of administrative conformity in the 10 Tricare regions across the United States.
Some retirees accuse Congress and the Pentagon of breaking a pledge to provide lifetime health benefits.
“The government has broken its promise,” said Chuck Partridge, legislative counsel for the 160,000-member National Association for Uniformed Services.
“As an officer,” said Mr. Partridge, a retired Army colonel, “I used to talk the troops into staying beyond their two-year commitment. You have this great health care program you never lose.’ I figured I was telling the truth and I wasn’t.”
Mr. Lott wrote to Mr. Clinton in November, urging him to add $5 billion to this year’s defense spending level of $267 billion.
“The military medical and dental care system still does not provide benefits to all that have earned them and is possibly the single most important item affecting the quality of life of our service members, their families and our retirees,” Mr. Lott wrote.
“Today, there are the same number of potential beneficiaries, some 8 million, as when we began the downsizing almost 10 years ago. But the resources allocated to military health care have decreased dramatically. We can no longer squeeze blood from this stone. Our servicemen and women, their families and our retirees deserve better.”
Military sources said a range of options are being discussed. They include:
Pumping in more money to increase fees to doctors, some of whom have left Tricare, and hire more physicians
Reducing the time it takes Tricare to pay doctors.
Streamlining the bureaucracy to cut patient waiting time.
Allowing retirees over age 65 to enroll in the federal employees health care system to supplement Medicare benefits. Also, make Tricare prescription benefits available to them.
Over-65 retirees who do not live near a military pharmacy are forced to pay for their own prescription drugs, according to Mr. Partridge.
Mr. Partridge said the department is hundreds of millions of dollars behind in paying Tricare private contractors. Sources said the Pentagon is having trouble finding money to fund Tricare at this year’s level, much less provide an increase.
“If there’s a lightening rod for concern and criticism from the troops, it’s the Tricare system,” said Capt. Pietropaoli. “It’s not so much the quality of care once you break the code and get in the system … we’ve got really good health care providers… . But when the system makes it so difficult to access your own medical care, there is something wrong.”

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