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Lawmakers oppose proposed changes to Tricare medical benefits

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CANTON - Multiple lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. William L. Owens, have voiced concerns about how the Department of Defense would alter the health insurance plan used by military families and retirees.

The biggest health care change as a part of the DOD’s proposed $495.6 billion 2015 fiscal year budget would see the Tricare Prime, Extra and Standard programs consolidated into a single plan in 2016.

Though the changes would not affect active-duty service members, their dependents and non-medically retired retirees younger than age 65 may see higher co-pays, deductibles and enrollment fees. New enrollees in Tricare for Life, for retirees older than 65, also could see new fees.

“If they were to go through, clearly it’s a negative impact,” Mr. Owens said. “My view at this juncture is we’ve made a deal with people, whether they’re on active duty or retired, and we need to keep that deal.”

The only changes Mr. Owens said he’d find acceptable would be for those joining the service in the future, “so they’d know what their deal was.”

Denise K. Young, executive director of the Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization, said that about 25 percent of the people in the immediate 40-mile area surrounding the post are Tricare beneficiaries. An economic impact statement from Fort Drum released last week showed about 2,615 military retirees live in the 136xx ZIP code area.

She said the military’s Tricare changes are a part of challenges seen locally and nationwide to lower costs while maintaining quality of care.

Although Mrs. Young said she did not think that local health care providers would see significant impacts to their delivery of care as a result of the insurance changes, she did see the potential impacts to the finances of Tricare users.

“Whenever there’s more coming out of our wallets, it hurts for sure,” she said.

At this point, Mr. Owens said that the possibility of the changes taking effect was a big if, and that he did not think lawmakers in Washington would approve the changes as initially written.

“I simply don’t think Congress will go along,” Mr. Owens said. “We’ll probably provide enough funding to DOD to cover this.”

However, blocking the proposed Tricare changes could leave holes in other parts of the defense budget.

Robert F. Hale, Defense Department comptroller, estimated last week that if Congress rejected the insurance changes, along with other benefit changes such as housing allowances and commissaries, it could create a budget gap of $2.1 billion in the 2015 fiscal year alone.

Other critiques of the changes have come in what the plan will cover. In late February, a group of about 50 lawmakers, including Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., sent a note to Defense Secretary Charles Hagel with questions and concerns that the changes would mean that several Molecular Pathology Laboratory tests and other tests would not be covered if performed by a civilian medical provider.

The group’s letter can be viewed at http://wdt.me/GfZ2bY.

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