Pay and Benefits Watch: Health help for DoD retirees

The Senate voted Wednesday to approve an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2001 that would allow military retirees age 65 and older to participate in Defense Department health care plans.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sponsored the amendment that would extend eligibility for medical care under DoD's CHAMPUS and Tricare programs to more than 1 million DoD retirees over age 64.

On the Senate floor, Warner noted that even though the Defense Department has never been statutorily required to offer health care to military retirees, many service members were promised they would receive health care for life. Forcing them into Medicare, he said, "is a breach of a promise, made on behalf of our nation, and we've got to correct it."

"These individuals devoted a significant portion of their lives with careers in service to our country," Warner said. "I recognize with profound sorrow how we broke the promise to these retirees." Tricare, the military's managed care system, and the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Uniformed Services (CHAMPUS), an insurance program to cover supplemental care from civilian doctors for military dependents and for retirees, currently only cover military retirees until Medicare kicks in at age 65.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that Warner's amendment would cost DoD $1.9 billion in 2001 and $3.8 billion by 2003. Over ten years, the price tag adds up to $40 billion. If passed, funds for the program will be earmarked in DoD's 2002 budget request and the program would take effect on Oct. 1, 2002. The amendment would only authorize the benefits until 2004, due to budgetary constraints.

Provided the larger Defense Authorization bill that the Senate passes includes this amendment, the provision would next move to a House-Senate conference committee.

Another amendment that would have allowed all retirees 65 and older to participate in the Federal Employees' Health Benefits Plan was defeated in the Senate Wednesday. That plan, proposed by Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., would have cost $90 billion over 10 years.

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