WASHINGTON - The Veterans of Foreign Wars on Tuesday urged its 2 million members to plead with Congress to spare military and veterans' benefits as a special deficit-cutting panel looks to slash $1.2 trillion from the federal budget.
In a "call to action," the VFW said it opposes any changes to the programs and decried any congressional attempt to balance the budget on the backs of military retirees and disabled veterans. The organization implored members, their families and friends to contact lawmakers immediately.
"It is critical that our voices not be lost in the ongoing budget debate that seems to now equate national service and sacrifice with the size of health care premiums," said Richard L. DeNoyer, a retired Marine and head of the VFW. "The `people programs' inside the (departments) are expensive because it takes people to fight our wars, and with less than 1 percent of our citizens currently in uniform, any degradation of these hard fought-for programs will break faith with those who sacrifice the most."
The plea was prompted by several recommendations to the so-called supercommittee that sent shock waves through the powerful groups of retired officers and veterans. Last Friday, the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee suggested that the panel consider some of President Barack Obama's proposed cost-saving changes to health and retirement benefits for the military.
Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz., said they would support establishing an annual enrollment fee for TRICARE for Life, the health care program that has no fee for participation. Obama had proposed an initial annual fee of $200.
McCain also urged the supercommittee to consider restricting working-age military retirees and their dependents from enrolling in TRICARE Prime, which has the lowest out-of-pocket expenses. The retirees could still enroll in other TRICARE programs. McCain pointed out that the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that such a move would save $111 billion over 10 years.
Active-duty personnel still would be enrolled in the program automatically.
McCain, who was Obama's rival for the presidency in 2008, also said he supported Obama's proposal for a commission to review military retirement benefits that should consider changes to the military compensation system. He said he agreed with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who said those currently serving in the military should be "grandfathered" in, so expected benefits aren't reduced.
Levin also backed creation of a commission, but suggested that it look at all elements of military compensation, including basic pay, allowances such as housing, incentive pay and the tax structure for military pay. He said current service members should be grandfathered in "to avoid breaking faith with the force."
The Pentagon's health care costs have skyrocketed from $19 billion in 2001 to $53 billion, but lawmakers and various groups argue that members of the military and their families sacrifice far more than the average American, with a career that includes long and dangerous deployments overseas that overshadow civilian work. Health and retirement benefits help attract service members to the all-volunteer force.
Asked about the response from groups such as the VFW, McCain said Tuesday in an interview, "They're very worried and we want to assure them that we will protect present beneficiaries."
Another member of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., expressed support for McCain's proposal.
Separately, the top lawmakers on the House and Senate Veterans' Affairs committees also sent a letter to the supercommittee that offered no specific recommendations on cuts but did describe cost-saving steps that Congress and administrations have taken in the past.
"In past times of fiscal restraint, thoughtful and measured areas of budgetary savings found within veterans' programs have advanced on a bipartisan basis," the lawmakers wrote. "We recommend that the Select Committee refer to these lists when making the difficult decisions ahead."
Signing the letter were Reps. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Bob Filner, D-Calif., and Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Patty Murray, D-Wash. Murray is co-chair of the supercommittee. .