The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

State and Nation

April 8, 2013

Pentagon struggles with high cost of health care

— WASHINGTON (AP) — The loud, insistent calls in Washington to rein in the rising costs of Social Security and Medicare ignore a major and expensive entitlement program — the military's health care system.

Despite dire warnings from three defense secretaries about the uncontrollable cost, Congress has repeatedly rebuffed Pentagon efforts to establish higher out-of-pocket fees and enrollment costs for military family and retiree health care as an initial step in addressing a harsh fiscal reality. The cost of military health care has almost tripled since 2001, from $19 billion to $53 billion in 2012, and stands at 10 percent of the entire defense budget.

Even more daunting, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that military health care costs could reach $65 billion by 2017 and $95 billion by 2030.

On Wednesday, when President Barack Obama submits his fiscal 2014 budget, the Pentagon blueprint is expected to include several congressionally unpopular proposals — requests for two rounds of domestic base closings in 2015 and 2017, a pay raise of only 1 percent for military personnel and a revival of last year's plan to increase health care fees and implement new ones, according to several defense analysts.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel insisted this past week that the military has no choice as it faces a $487 billion reduction in projected spending over the next decade and possibly tens of billions more as tea partyers and other fiscal conservatives embrace automatic spending cuts as the best means to reduce the government's trillion-dollar deficit.

The greatest fiscal threat to the military is not declining budgets, Hagel warned, but rather "the growing imbalance in where that money is being spent internally." In other words, money dedicated to health care or benefits is money that's not spent on preparing troops for battle or pilots for missions.

Hagel echoed his predecessors, Leon Panetta, who said personnel costs had put the Pentagon on an "unsustainable course," and former Pentagon chief Robert Gates, who bluntly said in 2009 that "health care is eating the department alive."

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