DALLAS, March 10th, 2012 – Recently, the White House honored 200 of the 1.2 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with a special meal and high words of praise. In a moving speech, President Obama spoke of sacrifice and struggle, reminding his audience that new veterans would not be abandoned like the Vietnam generation. “That’s a mistake that we must never repeat,” he stated. Meanwhile, a series of policy actions contradict these statements, exposing government intentions to unnecessarily sacrifice the military community at the altar of budget cuts.
The first betrayal of trust involves outrageous increases to TRICARE, the health insurance benefit program for active and retired military personnel. A proposed “tiered increase” in annual payments would dramatically raise rates from 30% to 78% for the first year, and 94% to 345% after five years. In addition, new annual fees, increased prescription co-payments and the elimination of generic drug incentives would render TRICARE virtually useless. Some benefits would also become “means-tested” and therefore categorized as a welfare system, not a benefit. The price hikes would affect 1.5 million active-duty service members, 21.8 million veterans, and their families.
Tenured veterans and activists see the move as blatant betrayal. The Military Officers Association of America calls the proposed changes a “breach of faith.” VFW leader Richard DeNoyer, a Vietnam combat veteran and retired Marine, issued the following statement, “there is no military personnel issue more sacrosanct than pay and benefits. Messing with military pay and benefits is a clear signal to the troops and their families that the budget is more important than people. That is going to seriously hurt recruiting and retention, and potentially end the all-volunteer force, because nobody wants to work for an ungrateful employer in a vocation as inherently dangerous as ours.”
As VFW leaders understand, the promise of healthcare for military families is a major recruiting and retention attraction. Josh, a 32-year old single father of two and four-tour combat veteran awaiting a fifth deployment, is reassessing his Army career. “We’re sent off to war for 12 months at a time for 10 years. Our families crumble with the strain and then this? I love the Army, but this is the last straw. This administration doesn’t care about the military,” he says. “I can’t afford to take care of my family if this happens. I’m getting out.”
“Houstonj”, an Air Force retiree of 25 years wrote on a Military.com forum, “TRICARE increases like that will be enough that either my automatic payment for my mortgage or my automatic payment for TRICARE out of my retirement check will fail, because the check for 25 years of service will no longer be enough to cover both expenses.”
Both veterans and active-duty members note that the move is particularly insulting because unionized Defense Department workers, some of which are compensated 50% more than military counterparts, are not affected. Many of these favored corporations pay no income taxes, though their shocking wealth was acquired via contracts funded by American tax-payers, contributing to the deficit requiring the cuts. Since these changes don’t take effect until next year, most believe this is a move designed to reward political connections despite devastating consequences for the military community.
According to a congressional aide, “We all recognize that we are in a time of austerity. But defense has made up to this point 50 percent of deficit reduction cuts that we agreed to, but is only 20 percent of the budget. The administration is asking troops to get by without the equipment and force levels needed for global missions. And now they are going to them again and asking them to pay more for their health care when you’ve held the civilian workforce at DoD and across the federal government virtually harmless in all of these cuts. And it just doesn’t seem fair.”
In an online forum, Vietnam veterans are standing with the newest generation of combat veterans, promising grass-roots activism. “Would the American people accept their taxes being raised 345 percent? Absolutely not,” charges “John”. “Cut profits for war profiteers or bureaucrats, but don’t you dare balance a recklessly overinflated budget on the backs of the military communities. DoD cronies raked in billions from these wars. They’re immune from sacrifice, but those that made their wealth possible are reduced to poverty over healthcare? Unacceptable. This isn’t the 70’s. We’re not going to take it anymore.”
Veterans that politically disagree with the administration take their frustration a step further. Considering recent statements made by congressional aides and political strategists, they charge the move is an underhanded attempt to boost participation in “ObamaCare,” or the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). By forcing military families onto state-run exchanges, participation in the PPACA would expand significantly. Administration officials acknowledge that the switch from the current TRICARE coverage to the state-run exchanges is part of an effort to trim $1.8 billion from the medical system in the fiscal 2013 budget, and $12.9 billion by 2017. Cuts they demand are necessary.
Mixing the discussions of these recent proposals in combination with “ObamaCare” sparks heated rhetoric from a usually quiet, apolitical community. Eric, an Army combat veteran who served in Vietnam, has written President Obama a passionate letter requesting that the military be granted “waivers” from the mandatory nationalized system like the administration’s other favored groups.
He references a January report from the Department of Health and Human Services, which reveals the administration issued “waivers” for labor union chapters, healthcare providers, large corporations, financial firms, local governments, gourmet restaurants and hotels. These “waivers” give these entities exemptions from the national healthcare program. “Special interests are getting “waivers” from this administration in reward for political favors, which is duplicitous in the first place. But if that’s going to be the way this program works, our veterans and military should take precedence over the thousands of special interest waiver recipients.”
He also asks the administration to clarify the new healthcare law’s penalty provision. By 2016, Americans declining mandatory insurance will be fined $695 or 2.5% of household income, whichever is greater. Eric is wondering if active-duty and retired military families can’t afford TRICARE and decline the state-run program, will they pay these fines too?
Though veterans and active-duty ranks are angered and shocked by the move, military officials at the higher-levels are supportive. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, called the current fee system, “little changed since 1996,” and “an anachronism” the military no longer can afford. He characterized the fee increases as part of the “tough choices” that must be made to reduce military spending. Yet critics counter that the Department of Defense has had multiple opportunities to responsibly reduce its budget, and has consistently failed to do so.
According to Government Accountability Agency reports, the federal government wastes as much as$100 billion per year in duplicated services. Several reports concluded that by simply reducing duplication in its command structure to eliminate redundant processes, the DoD could save taxpayers $281 to $460 million annually. Most DoD bureaucrats admit that streamlining services is key, but instead of implementing practical solutions, they are choosing to punish struggling military families for government incompetence.
In 2007 and 2008, the DoD proposed a similar scheme to shift $33 billion in costs to military beneficiaries, but Congress refused. According to the Military Officer’s Association, “Congress rejected these because Pentagon leaders need to do more to more effectively manage costs before penalizing beneficiaries and achieving savings by driving beneficiaries away from using their earned benefits is inappropriate.” Those previous recommendations are paltry by comparison to the FY2013 budget suggestions.
Mike Davis, a retired Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and veteran advocate, points out that government waste and corruption are responsible for the budget woes, not the military community, and that they should sacrifice not the men and women that have already been through so much. He charges that military benefits are the last place Washington should look. “Years ago, Rumsfeld proposed closing a third of the 800 international bases to save $12 billion from the defense budget. If we’re so broke, why don’t we come home and take care of our own? Because big business and our politicians benefit at our expense by keeping them open, so they past the costs of cuts to us. This is not justice.”
Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) agrees with Davis that government priorities are askew. His bookWastebook 2011 lists frivolous projects that have wasted millions despite a staggering national debt that destroyed the nation’s prized triple AAA credit rating. The list includes expensive research on chimpanzee defecation habits, funding for the development of “Sesame Street” for Pakistani toddlers, and a study of Japanese quail sexuality. Though demanding further sacrifice from the military community, the 2013 budget continues more non-essential spending while adding more than $7 trillion to the public debt by 2022.
Exasperating matters, this news comes amidst a series of new disappointments with the Obama Administration’s priorities and the competency of Veterans Affairs.
As part of the Budget Control Act of 2011, cuts scheduled to take effect early next year could slash additional funds from the Department of Veterans Affairs’ anemic budget. Chairman and Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) and veteran’s organizations wrote Obama repeatedly over the past 8 months to confirm veteran’s services were safe. To date, there has been no reply. The silence confirms congressional worries that the cuts will affect veterans, and that silence will continue until election season passes. To Miller, his constituents and veteran’s organizations, this is unacceptable. Out of desperation, Miller introduced the Protect VA Healthcare Act of 2012 (H.R. 3895), which hopes to stop these devastating cuts.
The disappointment continues. Since 2001, hope for the disastrous records management system at VA facilities has been pinned on database reform expected to launch this year. The database would link VA and DoD records, easing the administrative bottleneck. Though most private industries could have implemented such mission critical procedures in 12-24 months, six years and $600 million later, the consistently incompetent and scandal-ridden VA requested an additional $11 billion and delayed completion until 2018. To date, a backlog of 800,000 to 1 million pending cases sit on desks throughout nationwide facilities while veterans and their families languish for 2-12 months.
Politicians are taking action against this outrageous act. Presidential candidate Dr. Ron Paul (R-TX), left the campaign trail to introduce the Military Retirees Health Care Protection Act (HR 1092), which prohibits TRICARE increases without congressional approval.
As a Vietnam veteran with the largest military following of any candidate, Paul is beyond angry. “Instead of cutting our veterans’ benefits, President Obama should truly support our troops by bringing them home to protect our borders and defend our country. Reunite them with their families and make sure they no longer play policeman in dangerous foreign civil wars,” Paul said in a statement. “Cutting the benefits of our veterans while we subsidize the security of other wealthy nations like Germany and Japan and play ‘world policeman’ makes no sense,” he concluded. U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL), a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, backs Paul’s statements, “We have an obligation to fulfill the promises made to those who served in the military,” Stearns said.
Political rhetoric aside, considering the extraordinary government waste, fraud, and abuse of American tax dollars perpetuated both parties and their special interests, forcing our military to further sacrifice their financial and physical health because of Washington’s deficit woes is shameful. The military communities’ survival rests in the hands of the American government, and they know it.
So while Mr. Obama courts the military vote with fancy dinners and reminders that he ended the Iraq War and Bin Laden, teleprompter praise does not effect change. As the military community understands more than most, actions in the halls of power speak louder than words, and these acts are unnecessary harmfully to millions of Americans. The act of blatantly abandoning them in favor of the connected elite should concern all citizens, particularly from an administration touting the virtues of equality.
The President’s 2013 budget is a request. Congressional hearings begin next week and though current law limits TRICARE fee increases, the House will make the next move by passing a resolution. Congressional leaders have a duty to defeat these proposals and demand the administration cut unnecessary waste before forsaking America’s military and veteran families.
In the meantime, veterans and active duty military implore their civilian counterparts to get involved by emailing their elected representatives in support of protective legislation.
23.3 million service members and families depend upon their help in avoiding the devastating consequences of political betrayal.