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Now Even the Pentagon Is Worried About Rising Healthcare Costs

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have all pleaded with Congress to rein in the costs of Tricare, the government health program for active and retired military personnel and their families and survivors. But the power of the military retiree lobby has effectively forestalled efforts to impose even small cost increases on Tricare members -- even though the system now devours about 10 percent of the defense budget.

Why do deficit hawks of both parties protect military retirees -- many of whom have shifted to Tricare from the more expensive private insurance offered by their current employers? Why do Republicans who thunder about the supposedly generous benefits of other government workers shower even richer benefits on the former warriors? The short answer is that there's a double standard at work in this country: Ex-military people are simply not regarded in the same light as other government employees.

Tricare costs triple
In the past decade, the cost of Tricare has nearly tripled to $53 billion, and it's conservatively predicted to hit $65 billion within the next five years. In introducing the 2012 defense budget to Congress, Secretary Gates called this level of spending "unsustainable." (It's also a big boon to private insurers, as I recently noted.)

Currently, many of the 9.6 million Tricare members pay only tiny insurance premiums compared to those in the private sector. Active duty service members and and retirees over age 65 pay nothing.

After furious lobbying by the retired military officers association, Congress rebuffed a previous Pentagon proposal to triple Tricare premiums over five years. Now Gates is trying to get the lawmakers to approve a proposal that would raise family premiums for a popular Tricare HMO from $460 to $520 a year -- about a ninth of worker contributions in the private sector. The cost of individual coverage would rise from $230 to $260.

But even that modest rise is in question, because it will be tied to regular increases in Tricare premiums. From the viewpoint of military retirees and many lawmakers, the government basically owes veterans free health insurance.

GOP: Public union workers can suck it
This is a very different attitude than that of conservative legislators at the state and federal levels taken toward public unions. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has sought to break the power of unionized government workers in his state altogether. He exempted policemen and firemen from the law his Republican supporters rammed through the state legislature recently. But in Ohio, a similar bill that passed the state senate includes the cops and firemen.

Now, perhaps it can be argued that some (though certainly not all) retired military personnel risked their lives for their country and therefore, they should be given preferential treatment in retirement. But don't policemen and firefighters also risk their lives every day? And for that matter, why are teachers, who are entrusted with the education of our children, considered less important than those who defend our country?

When you figure it out, let me know. Meanwhile, the double standard persists.

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