Top officers urge higher TRICARE fees

Leaders of the three naval services on Monday argued for an increase in the health care fees that retired military personnel and their families pay.

The leaders of the three naval services on Monday argued for an increase in the fees retired military personnel and their families pay for health care, something Congress has refused to approve for more than a decade.

Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations; Gen. James Conway, the Marine Corps commandant; and Adm. Thad Allen, Coast Guard commandant, all complained about the soaring costs of healthcare and said increased contributions by the retirees for their TRICARE coverage is overdue.

Speaking at the Navy League's annual symposium at the National Harbor convention center, Roughead disagreed strongly with the demand by House Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee Chairman Gene Taylor, D-Miss., that the Navy retain its aging Perry-class frigates, which are at or near their expected service life limits.

And Allen, whose service is heavily engaged in fighting the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, rejected criticism that the Defense Department was not doing its part to address the massive environmental crisis.

Responding to a question about the impact of healthcare costs on their increasingly tight financial conditions, all three leaders said that was a growing problem. Roughead noted that on top of the expense for his active-duty force the expense of the half a million retirees "eats into our other programs."

Conway was more direct, saying there has not been an adjustment in the retirees payments for TRICARE in two decades "and that needs to be addressed."

Allen, who is a month from retirement, said he had just signed up for TRICARE Prime, the top-level defense medical coverage, for himself and his wife and paid only $465. "Something needs to be done about that."

Asked whether he would keep the frigates in service past their 30-year service life, Roughead said if the Navy "is not able to remove ships on plan, the only place to look for the money [to maintain them] is procurement."

Keeping old ships "means we don't build anything new," he said.

Taylor has complained that the retirement of existing ships keeps the Navy from increasing its fleet and has demanded that the Navy maintain the frigates.

Allen, in his opening comments, provided an update on the oil spill and warned that the only solution to the massive pollution threat would be to drill a new well to reduce the pressure on the well and then cap it. That would take at least 90 days, he said.

But Allen sharply disputed claims that the military was not helping. He said the Navy's salvage experts were called in immediately after the explosion on the offshore oil rig and other assistance was provided by the military.