Survey: Military families report concern over potential TRICARE fee hike

Stephen Morton/AP
Military families are worried about changes to their health insurance, and those concerns are prompting them to sock away more money for such costs during retirement, according to a new survey.

Thirty-one percent of middle-class military families who responded to a survey from First Command Financial Behaviors Index are nervous about potentially higher health care costs under the military's TRICARE program; as a result, 52 percent of respondents said they were increasing the amount of money they are saving for such expenses during retirement. Sixteen percent of survey participants said they planned to investigate different retirement options.

"Almost nine out of 10 respondents say that TRICARE is an extremely or very important part of their military retirement benefits," said Scott Spiker, chief executive officer of First Command Financial Services Inc. "Faced with the possibility of an erosion of this benefit, active-duty families are dedicated to learning more today and saving more for tomorrow."

Increasing health care premiums for military retirees has long been a politically sensitive subject, with lawmakers and military advocates wary of appearing ungrateful for the sacrifices of service members. Participant fees under TRICARE were set in 1995 and have remained at $460 per year for the basic family plan. The cost for comparable coverage for federal workers is between $5,000 and $6,000 annually.

The Pentagon has pushed for fee increases -- originally proposing a 13 percent boost in 2012 -- and continues to weigh changes to the program as part of overall deficit reduction. Costs for new enrollees rose slightly as of Oct. 1, and other increases could be coming. Beneficiaries who joined TRICARE Prime in fiscal 2012 will pay an additional $2.50 per month for individual members and $5 per month for family enrollment -- bringing the total annual fee to $260 and $520, respectively. Costs for retirees already in the program, as well as survivors of active-duty service members and medically retired participants, remain at $230 per year for individuals and $460 per year for families.

There also is support on Capitol Hill for changes in the TRICARE fee structure. Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz., last month submitted recommendations to the deficit reduction super committee in support of the Obama administration's cost-saving proposal released in September. The plan would mandate annual fees under TRICARE for Life, which pays beneficiaries' out-of-pocket Medicare costs. Fees would start at $200 in 2012 and increase annually to align with those paid by all TRICARE enrollees. The proposal also would eliminate pharmacy co-payments for generic mail-order drugs while shifting retail co-pays from a dollar figure to a percentage. The change would affect military families and retirees but would not apply to active-duty service members. The administration also recommended the creation of a panel to look at reforming military retirement benefits.

According to the latest First Command survey, military families typically save less for retirement health care costs than the general population does -- about $30 per month compared to $100 per month. Spiker said one of the positive repercussions of proposed TRICARE hikes is "an increased focus on saving for retirement needs, which would bring active-duty families more in line with the general population."

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