- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 17, 2009

A military retirement system that has often been the target of budget cuts at the Pentagon is a central concern of Retired Army Col. Bob Norton, deputy director of government relations at the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA). Col. Norton outlined MOAA’s role in preserving

benefits for the military community in a speech at the Globe & Laurel restaurant in Stafford, Va. before the Heritage Chapter.

He reminded the audience of retired military officers and spouses that although he was going to talk about health care, this was not a town hall meeting. “I have no heat shield,” he said. MOAA is the largest association of military officers, with more than 374,000 members and 400 chapters nationwide.

Col. Norton said that the purpose of MOAA is to help in every phase of an officer’s life. MOAA supports active duty officers as well as officers transitioning to a second or subsequent career and ultimately into full retirement. Four of every 10 members are active duty officers,

Health care had been an issue of concern to MOAA, long before it became a topic of national debate. Col. Norton said that lifetime medical coverage, though not always contractually stipulated, was promised when military members were recruited and enticed to stay in the military.

“We are going to deal with health care as it applies to military members, retirees, and survivors … working to protect and defend earned compensation,” he said.

Col. Norton pointed out the uniqueness of military service: Less than one percent of the population is serving in harsh, dangerous, and often deadly conditions to protect the other more than 300 million Americans.

Health care for retirees through TRICARE and particularly TRICARE-for-Life (which Col. Norton described as “where TRICARE handshakes with Medicare”) remain as the biggest victory for MOAA in defense of earned benefits for retirees of all ranks and all military services.

TRICARE is the health care program administered by the Department of Defense that works much like insurance coverage. Traditionally, retired members of the military and their qualifying family members were seen on a “space available” basis at military facilities.

The uncertainty inherent in such a system as well as the rising cost of health care resulted in organizations like MOAA working with the government to provide reliable and affordable health care to those serving in the military, their families, as well as veterans, retirees, and survivors. TRICARE is subject to review and changes at the discretion of Congress and the Department of Defense.

MOAA and 33 other groups that are part of The Military Coalition are the guardians of benefits that are earned by military members.

TRICARE is the result of efforts that began shortly after World War II to standardize health care for members. Like all government programs, it is subject to change. Hence MOAA leaders remain vigilant.

Col. Norton defined the “four pillars of MOAA in the area of health care.” The first pillar is to “protect Medicare” as it becomes a key component of the earned health care benefit for military retirees as they age.

The second pillar is to “preserve the integrity of TRICARE.” Col. Norton said that MOAA membership had recently conducted a postcard campaign, initiated in MOAA’s Military Officer magazine. Members of Congress received “over 40,000 postcards … it counts, it has clout, and it works” said Col. Norton.

The third pillar is to oppose taxes on existing health care delivered through TRICARE or the Veteran Administration. Col. Norton expressed the sentiment of many military members: “We served our nation, we went into harm’s way, and we earned our benefits.”

The fourth and final pillar is to protect freedom of choice for retirees. Col. Norton promised that “we are going to stay focused on what is important to our members.”

A question from the attentive crowd led Col. Norton to comment on the work that MOAA is doing to defend disability payments from taxation for veterans who bear the most serious scars of service. “Disability compensation offsets a reduction in the quality of life for a service caused disability. That benefit should not be taxed,” he said.

“One of MOAA’s long standing goals is to defend Cost Of Living Adjustments (COLA), though you may laugh at that in this year of negative inflation,” he said. The audience was aware that the troubled economy had not created inflation that normally justifies COLA.

Col. Norton said that military service cannot be equated to other work. “We are a warrior culture, and we are different.” The overwhelming message throughout his presentation was that benefits were earned and in that sense were not some sort of entitlement or government giveaway.

The presentation concluded with a discussion of the on-going efforts of MOAA to ensure that military members seriously wounded in the line of duty and subsequently medically retired are fairly treated in the system and compensated appropriately.

Though the event was focused on health care, MOAA has a broad agenda of support for active duty, guard, reserve, retired members as well as their families and survivors.

The Heritage Chapter’s representative, Ret. Army Col. Jim Brown closed the meeting with a list of things that the chapter had scheduled. These include support to local Junior ROTC units, a luncheon with veterans at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, and packing USO boxes for deployed service members.

Lt. Col. Bill Card is retired from the Marine Corps and has been a member of MOAA since 1995.

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