Adjustments Essential to Maintaining Tricare, Official Says

By Sgt. Sara Wood, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 2, 2006  - Adjustments to the Tricare program are necessary to ensure military health benefits are maintained at a superior level for many years, a Defense Department official said here yesterday.

The much-anticipated changes, which will be introduced next week with the release of the Quadrennial Defense Review and the president's budget request, will not change the benefits military beneficiaries receive under the program, Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said at the State of the Military Health System 2006 Annual Conference.

"Sustaining the benefit is about making needed adjustments that are fair, that are thoughtful, that are equitable, and that go a long way towards sustaining the superior program that we have today," Winkenwerder said.

Program adjustments will not affect active-duty military members or their families, said Army Brig. Gen. Elder Granger, deputy director and program executive officer of the Tricare Management Activity.

"We know we have a nation that is at war, and we're going to continue to make sure that we maintain those superb benefits that we need to support this long and drawn out global war on terrorism," Granger said.

The adjustments, which will affect enrollment costs and other fees, will apply to the large military retiree population served by Tricare. Raising costs to beneficiaries is a controversial issue, but DoD cannot keep up its medical system if the costs keep increasing at the rate they have been, Winkenwerder said.

"We are recognizing a reality that we have in front of us, and not to act or not to take appropriate steps to recognize that reality would be placing the promise of a great health benefit at risk," he said. "Doing nothing is not a secure foundation for the future."

Health costs for the military have been rising at an increasingly higher rate in the past five years, due to added and expanded benefits, reduced cost contributions, regular health inflation, and a growing population of retirees under the age of 65, Winkenwerder said. Costs have doubled in five years, he said, and if they continue at this rate, it is estimated that the health system will take up 8 percent of the DoD budget, at $64 billion, by 2015.

Determining what adjustments will be made has been a long process, involving the surgeons general of the services, the service chiefs, the Joint Staff, assistant secretaries for manpower and readiness, and personnel chiefs, Winkenwerder said. It has been a joint effort, and all the entities approve of the results, he said.

"There's agreement that this is the right approach, and the leadership is very much in agreement that what the department is putting forward is appropriate, prudent, fair, equitable and necessary," he said.

The military health system will employ other strategies to make operations more efficient and save money, Winkenwerder said. DoD will promote generic drug use in pharmacies, the use of the mail-order pharmacy, better hospital use, and joint procurement with the Veterans Affairs Department, he said. DoD's new electronic record system also will save the department money by reducing medical errors and speeding up the movement of information, he added.

DoD's only motivation in making these changes is to ensure health benefits are maintained at their current level, Winkenwerder said. The proposed changes will save billions of dollars over the years and will allow the department to sustain the best health system in the country, he said.

"It is a fantastic benefit, and I am absolutely delighted that that's what has been built," he said. "Our goal is to sustain that, to keep that for the future."