When John Kriesel’s young son was hit in the face with a baseball two years ago, the disabled Iraq veteran and former Minnesota legislator brought his boy to the doctor and then in for an MRI scan to rule out a serious brain injury.
Thanks to the Pentagon health insurance program for military retirees that Kriesel is currently enrolled in, his out-of-pocket expenses were about $20. But if the accident had happened after Kriesel and almost 4,000 other state veterans are unfairly pushed into a different military-run insurance plan this fall just because they live in Minnesota, the family’s portion of the bill could easily have come to hundreds of dollars.
“There’s a sort of promise that’s made to our military:
If you raise your hand to defend our freedom, we will make sure you are taken care of afterward,’’ said Kriesel. “There’s a promise made that these benefits are going to be there, and people make life choices such as where to live based on this insurance being there. To pull the rug out from underneath them with very little notice is unacceptable.”
Uncle Sam has long made sure that military retirees get a generous deal on their health insurance after they leave the service, with out-of-pocket expenses for those enrolled in the Department of Defense’s sprawling Tricare program well below what many privately insured people pay. But there’s a strong argument to be made that these veterans more than paid their future insurance premiums and copays when they put their lives on the line in some of the world’s most dangerous spots.
Any changes to their health insurance benefits should be done with consideration and care, and certainly should not burden veterans in some states but not others. That is not the case with the change that would abruptly move Kriesel and thousands of other veterans out of Tricare Prime this fall into the potentially more costly Tricare Standard plan.
Not every military retiree would have to switch. Tricare Prime, a managed care-style plan popular because it has an affordable yearly enrollment fee and relatively low cost-sharing for enrollees, will continue in many locations.
But those who don’t live within 100 miles of a military hospital, which is the case for all Minnesota vets, would not have a choice. About 3,900 Tricare Prime enrollees here would lose their coverage and move to Tricare Standard, which is also a generous plan but has deductibles and requires retirees to pay 25 percent of allowable charges, such as for an office visit or other care, according to Military.com. A recent Government Accountability Office report also explored persistent concerns among Tricare Standard enrollees about finding providers who will accept this coverage.
About 171,000 veterans nationally would be affected by the Tricare change, a cost-cutting move estimated to save the Department of Defense $45 million to $56 million a year.
The Pentagon does need to rein in spending on the $53-billion-a-year Tricare program for both active and retired service members. But cutbacks should be shared fairly, not just by some. And the Department of Defense needs to ensure that when changes are made, veterans are given timely and complete information.
Kriesel, Anoka County’s director of veteran services, said communication on the planned changes has been minimal at best. Veterans are calling in with concerns and have found it hard to get good information. “The implementation of this has been terrible. I don’t see how it could have been handled any worse,’’ he said.
Other recent Tricare changes that have not gone smoothly, such as UnitedHealthcare taking over the management contract in this region, have only added to the confusion. Department of Defense officials did not respond to an editorial writer’s requests for comment this week.
Fortunately, Minnesota Republican Rep. John Kline has stepped up with a reasonable and timely fix. This week, Kline, a retired Marine, introduced the “Keep Faith with Tricare Prime Act.’’ Essentially, it would grandfather in Tricare Prime enrollees, allowing them a one-time decision to stay in the plan as long as they stay in their current community.
The October deadline for the switch means Congress will need to move quickly. Kline will need the support of his Minnesota U.S. House colleagues and the state’s two senators — Democrats Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken.
Klobuchar, who sent a letter to defense officials in December about the Tricare change, and Franken are both strong advocates for veterans. Their growing clout in the Senate will be crucial in getting a legislative fix enacted in time.
On Friday, Klobuchar’s office said the senator is moving to sponsor Kline’s legislation in the U.S. Senate.
“Veterans are not asking for anything elaborate,’’ Kriesel said. “They’re just asking that you don’t take away something that’s already been given.’’