Military Health System under Scrutiny: Congress, Pentagon Officials Consider Cures for Plan's Ills

Article excerpt

The Pentagon and some prominent members of Congress have agreed next year to begin revamping a military health care system afflicted by long waiting lines and an exodus of top doctors, military officials say.

One senator has called for a $5 billion defense spending increase in fiscal 2001, which begins Oct. 1, including more money for medical benefits.

"We can no longer squeeze blood from this stone," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, told President Clinton in a recent letter.

Senior defense officials and congressional aides met at the Pentagon on the issue Dec. 13, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff followed up with their own session on Wednesday. Military sources said a consensus was reached to reform the health system, known as Tricare.

"It is certainly in the sights of the chairman and the service chiefs for the year ahead," said Capt. Stephen Pietropaoli, spokesman for Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "because we see it has having a direct effect on our overall readiness based upon retention and recruiting. . . . There's no clear plan on this yet. We're working closely with the secretary of defense."

Congressional aides say they hope to push the health care debate early next year in the same way Congress quickly moved in January 1999 to raise pay in the largest military benefits increase since 1981.

"We want health care to be the first bill enacted next year," said one aide. "It is probably the No. 1 issue facing the military right now because it is affecting recruiting and retention."

The department provides care for some 8 million beneficiaries, including 1.4 million active-duty troops, 1.8 million retirees and their dependents. In recent years, Congress and the Pentagon have fielded an increasing number of complaints about delays in getting doctors' appointments and the lack of administrative conformity in the 10 Tricare regions across the United States.

Some retirees accuse Congress and the Pentagon of breaking a pledge to provide lifetime health benefits.

"The government has broken its promise," said Chuck Partridge, legislative counsel for the 160,000-member National Association for Uniformed Services. …