Lawmakers question Pentagon’s request to move TRICARE funds

Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., was among lawmakers who sent the letter to Leon Panetta. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., was among lawmakers who sent the letter to Leon Panetta. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

House lawmakers want to know why the Pentagon is asking Congress to transfer millions of dollars from its health care accounts to fund other unspecified priorities.

A bipartisan group of representatives on Tuesday sent a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta questioning a request to reprogram $708 million from the Defense Health Program and TRICARE to use for “higher priorities.” The lawmakers said they have not been told what those other priorities are, and the Defense Department did not comment on the specifics in response to questions from Government Executive.

“We have concerns about this reprogramming request because we believe there are serious health issues that our military service members and military retirees are currently facing that are of the highest priority,” stated the letter, which was signed by 24 representatives. In particular, the lawmakers cited post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and troubling suicide rates among service members as reasons to protect funds already allocated to health care. Congress appropriated about $53 billion in fiscal 2012 to fund health care for service members, military retirees and their families. Lawmakers must approve any requests from agencies to transfer appropriated funds to other accounts within the budget.

The Pentagon’s request to reprogram fiscal 2012 funds comes at a time when the Obama administration and lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle are debating increases to TRICARE enrollment fees and other health care-related costs. The administration in its fiscal 2013 budget proposed raising TRICARE fees for military retirees and their dependents over the next five years, with those in the upper-income brackets seeing the biggest hikes. The cost of providing health care to the military community has more than doubled in the past 12 years; enrollee fees have stayed relatively flat since 1995. So far, both chambers have rejected the administration’s specific proposals to hike fees.

The lawmakers who sent the letter to Panetta questioned whether the reprogramming request stemmed in part from congressional rejection of the administration’s recommendation to increase TRICARE fees. “We have heard that ‘TRICARE is crippling’ the DoD,” the lawmakers wrote. “This does not appear to be the case if DoD has a $708 million surplus in fiscal 2012.”

Caroline Delleney, communications director for Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., said her office has not heard back yet from the Pentagon on the matter. Wilson, chairman of the Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, led the group who signed the letter. Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith would not comment on the letter, saying only that Panetta “will respond back as appropriate.”

TRICARE, a major component of the military’s overall health care system, covers 9.6 million active-duty service members, retirees and their dependents. Most active-duty members and their families do not pay for health care, and there is little appetite to change that. Retirees younger and older than 65 represent the biggest health care cost for the department because they are the fastest-growing group, and the fees they pay typically are much less than what civilians shell out for health care.

Wilson and the other co-signers said they don’t plan to approve the Pentagon’s request to reprogram the funds until they are briefed on what the money will be used for and on the department’s overall budget planning process.

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