Let’s talk a little bit about that in terms of the probable actions that Congress may take regarding TRICARE in the next few years. What sorts of additions, deletions, and reforms do you feel might be in the offing for that?
A few things. To ensure people have better access to prescription drugs, we’re adding a beefed up mail-order program. We also need to look into some preventive health care opportunities that don’t exist today to keep our military members and their families healthy.
Another thing we have got to be honest about is that the percentage of the DoD [Department of Defense] budget that is being absorbed by health care for active-duty and retired members could be up to 15 percent in the next decade, especially with the “graying” of our retired community. We haven’t had a TRICARE premium increase for the retired community since 1989, and we’re going to have to look at adjusting premiums to get it more in line with civilian health care programs. If we do that, we’ll try to do it slowly and in a means-tested fashion, so you don’t have to ask people for more than they can afford to give. The Bush administration wanted something like a 30 percent increase a few years ago, and that was just too much to ask. But I do think we’re going to have to adjust premiums over time.
That sounds like another public health care debate that’s been in the news lately.
It is. When you look at DoD’s budget, the health care part of their budget is growing exponentially, just like any other business. And just as any business with limited resources, commanders will have to make hard decisions between growth in health care and the equipment we need for modernizing our weapons programs. I think we can do this in a way that would be fair, that would be phased in over time, but I don’t want to mislead people.
The TRICARE system needs to be about more choices and more providers. We’ll have to look at sustainability and right now, on its current course, TRICARE is not sustainable. We need to take a look at ways to put it on sounder footing.
When I retire from the Reserves, I’ll be eligible for TRICARE. I hope, and I think that in my case and at my income level, I can pay a little more than the current rate. I would be glad to do so.
Can you give us your personal thoughts on the current state of wounded-warrior care, and the programs for re-assimilating them into both the military and society?
The desire is great, with a lot of talented people involved, but right now the programs are too bureaucratic. We recently had a hearing with Sen. [Ben] Nelson [D-Neb.], the chairman and my counterpart on the Personnel Subcommittee, and we had a bunch of wounded warriors come in to tell us about how it works, and the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines all have different versions of the program. The desire to get this right is terrific, and the Pentagon is reforming this system as we speak to make sure when you go from the Department of Defense [DoD] to the Department of Veterans Affairs [VA], you don’t get “lost.” They want – and I think all the members of the committee do as well – want going from one government bureaucracy to another to be a seamless transition.
For example, with treatment for traumatic brain injury [TBI], we need to open up access into rural areas so our veterans can continue to get the care that DoD provides. That’s one area. Another is compensating family members who may lose their jobs to take care of a wounded warrior. I’m a big advocate of expanding economic opportunities to family members who are basically having to give up their jobs to take care of these wounded warriors once they’re discharged from DoD care. The big concern I have is what happens when you leave the DoD facility, go back into the civilian community or into the VA system. We’re constantly monitoring how to make sure people don’t fall through the cracks.
If a soldier is traumatically wounded, the healing process can takes months or years. You’ll never have a complete recovery. The benefits for the wounded service member and the chance to rehab and go back into the job market are pretty good. I think the one thing we need to look at is helping the family members for having to basically give up their careers to take care of these wounded warriors. I think they should be eligible for compensation just like any in-home contract service would be.