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U.S. Military Has New Threat: Health Care Costs

Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that pension and health care costs are eating the U.S. military alive. And the Pentagon predicts that the cost of taking care of its troops and retirees will keep growing.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has sought to raise rates on military health i...
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Above: Defense Secretary Robert Gates has sought to raise rates on military health insurance paid by working-age retirees. This week, he spoke to troops at Forward Operating Base Walton in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Retired Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro gets a lot of hate mail, because he's talking about something a whole lot of people don't want to hear about: the rising costs of military health and pension benefits.

"We in the Department of Defense are on the same path that General Motors found itself on," he says.

Punaro, a former Marine, is a member of the Defense Business Board, a group that advises the Pentagon on its financial operations.

"General Motors did not start out to be a healthcare company that occasionally built an automobile," he says. "Today, we're on the path in the Department of Defense to turn it into a benefits company that may occasionally kill a terrorist."

And Punaro's not alone. Secretary Gates sees the problem, too. He flagged it in March, during testimony to a congressional budget panel.

"The Defense Department runs the risk of the fate of other corporate and government bureaucracies that were ultimately crippled by personnel costs," he said, "in particular, their retiree benefit packages."

Here's what Gates was talking about: In the past decade, military health care costs more than doubled. It accounts for $52.5 billion in next year's proposed budget. Retirees' pay represents another $50 billion or so a year.

People once worried that the cost of a fighter jet or bomber program would devour the military's budget. Now those concerns rise over health and pension costs — the same things civilians are struggling with, Punaro says.

"Teachers are under fire. Government workers are under fire," he says. "Big corporations have walked away from these kinds of pensions and deferred compensation benefits, because they're unaffordable. And right now, the last bastion of this is in the Department of Defense."

Let's zoom in on health care. Secretary Gates says that the average federal worker who's not in the military pays about $4,000 a year for family coverage. The military has its version of health insurance. It's called Tricare.

"The cost of Tricare for a family, for a year, is $460," Gates says.

That is, $460 is the annual fee for working-age retirees — the group Secretary Gates has been trying to get to pay a little bit more. But it's not easy. Just as GM had a union to contend with, Gates has his own challenge: Congress.

He spoke about his efforts last month, at the American Enterprise Institute.

"The first two years I was in this job in the Bush administration, I went up to the Hill dutifully, each year, with a request for a tiny increase in the fee for Tricare and got my head lopped off," Gates said. "And so the third year, I didn't try."

But, as Gates recently told NPR's All Things Considered, now he's trying again.

"We are asking for the radical change of moving it to $520 — two and a half bucks a month."

Actually, it's 5 bucks a month for family coverage. Still Gates is running into resistance, from people like retired Air Force Maj. Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veteran's of Foreign Wars.

"When people talk about $5 a month being reasonable — yes, it's reasonable," Davis says. "It is reasonable. But the thing is: What comes next?"

You can't compare military benefits to benefits in the civilian world, Davis says, because the career of someone in the military is often so much harder.

"In that 20 years, you have the possibility of picking up your entire family and moving about a dozen times," he says, adding, "Oh by the way, you're going to war. Your spouse will never be able to really have a career, because you're relocating all the time."

Retired Air Force Col. Steve Strobridge, the director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America, says that those sacrifices represent "a way steeper price than the $460 or $520 a year."

The Department of Defense "only looks at what the benefit to DOD is, and how much military people are costing them in dollars," he says. "They forget — and don't put any value on — what it has cost the people to serve."

Veterans groups say if the Department of Defense wants to cut costs, there are many other ways to do it.

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Avatar for user 'alain_j_perez'

alain_j_perez | June 7, 2011 at 11:15 a.m. ― 5 years, 9 months ago

Talk about a sticky conversation. Yes, military personnel do give up lots of choices and opportunities while serving; I know I was one of them for nine years. And yes, they should deserve the "heavens" and the "skies" from their country as a token of gratitude for their service. But the bottom line is the "heavens and the skies" don't come cheap. The reality is what Mr. Gates talked about, how GM turned out to be a healthcare and retirement company that made some cars a year. The DoD can not let itself become overrun by personnel (i.e. retirees) cost, especially healthcare and pension plans. These veterans associations need to come down from their pedestal and come to terms with the DoD. These associations are turning into another "milk the government for everything they have" type of place. That is the reason why I don't like them and why I'm not a member in any of them. They have become from a place for veterans to hang out and tell war stories to a lobby organization milking the government for every penny and if not then threatening senators with their votes. I wish these politicians stopped being afraid of doing their jobs instead of just securing votes for their re-election campaign. Is not what you can do for your self but what you can do for your country and your voters Mr. senator. Anyone care to pass a law that gives every politician only one term limit? It doesn't matter what office you occupy, if you got voted for the office then you are only staying there for four years.

Seriously people, we can't let this DoD health and pension problem get out of control.

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Avatar for user 'HarryStreet'

HarryStreet | June 7, 2011 at 5:57 p.m. ― 5 years, 9 months ago

Welcome to the club!

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