Retiree Health Care: Whose Chicken? Whose Pot?

For some retiree health benefits are like negotiating a rebate with AT&T. You’re two-year agreement comes with guarantees. Except, you have to look for an obscure e-mail asking for information that sends you on a week-long scavenger hunt, all so two months down the road, they can send you what was yours in the first place. Were you really expecting a prepaid Visa card?

Are retiree medical benefits much different?

I have been reading about Tricare and how it may be affected by health care policy or other changes. It has been reported that new health care legislation does not affect Tricare since the system is already compliant in many areas. Regardless, Tricare is facing financial challenges. Costs have reportedly increased from $19 billion in 2001 to a projected $50.7 billion in 2011, a 167 percent gain.

But wasn’t the deal that retirees would have free heath care for life? The belief has been so widespread the Congressional Research Service has looked at this more than once, updating its findings in 2003. Researchers could find no written guarantee or congressional authorization, making such a promise, but seemed amazed by the number of people making the same claim.

Aspects of this “promise” have made it into the court system and are mentioned in the CRS report. Congress has taken an interest in the issue, which is where organizations like the Military Officers Association come in. (We are not pimping MOAA.) This is a legitimate lobbying issue.

Is free healthcare for retirees just an urban legend?

We’ve heard Tricare is a no-cost health benefit. It’s not. Tricare Standard is free, until you use it and then you are responsible for co-pays and deductibles. But you can see a doctor without prior authorization – it will cost you, but you can do it. Tricare Extra has fewer provider options. Tricare Prime is more than one system. Active duty members’ and their families’ benefits differ from those of the retiree. While Tricare Prime is free to active duty members, retirees must shell out $230 for a single and $460 for a family’s annual enrollment.

Go far beyond a military treatment facility and the limited providers in Tricare Prime and you may be featured like other poor schleps on the evening news – bankrupt because of health care. (That may be an exaggeration.)

What is not an exaggeration is the belief by so many that they were guaranteed health care for life if they retired with at least twenty years on active duty.

Should veterans set up a tent city a la the World War I vets at Anacostia? They were not looking for a handout, nor are today’s retirees. A deal is a deal. Did everyone just dream a health-care-for-life promise?

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