Oregonian: Walden, Bonamici team to prevent 'potentially devastating' changes to military's health care plan
on December 05, 2012 at 10:34 AM, updated December 06, 2012 at 8:25 AM
WASHINGTON - Reps. Greg Walden and Suzanne Bonamici offered legislation Wednesday aimed at insulating "thousands of Oregon military retirees" from changes to the popular Tricare Prime health plan that they say will limit care and increase burdens to patients in the state.
The legislation follows months of pushing and a letter writing campaign to senior Pentagon officials that proved unsuccessful.
“Thousands of Oregonians who have worn our nation’s uniform are at risk of losing access to their health care provider when the popular Tricare Prime option is eliminated for many beneficiaries by the Pentagon. This could mean higher out-of-pocket costs and longer drives for many Oregon military retirees," Walden said in a statement announcing the legislation.
Bonamici had similar concerns.
“The recently announced changes to Tricare Prime are potentially devastating to retired service members who have sacrificed so much for our nation,” she said in a statement. “ ... This bipartisan legislation will ease the impact of the changes on military retirees and send a message that we honor military retirees and their families.”
Under the bill, the Pentagon is required to "issue a report to the Congress within 90 days identifying areas where Tricare Prime will no longer be available and an estimate of increased costs and impacts to beneficiaries as a result of the changes."
The bill also instructs the Pentagon to help retirees at risk of losing Tricare Prime to find replacement care and to identify beneficiaries who are likely to lose all care "because of the contract switch."
If approved, the responsibility for finding adequate replacement care would fall to the military instead of the stranded patient, said Walden's spokesman Andrew Malcolm.
Separately, the bill would allow stranded retirees to enroll in Tricare Prime Remote, a program that allows selected - but far-flung service members - to take part in the program. Under the Walden/Bonamici proposal, that option would be available for two years to give the Pentagon time to devise more permanent answer.
Walden and other members of the Oregon delegation tried gentler forms of persuasion with no success. They have written letters to the senior Pentagon officials detailing the problems the change will trigger and asking the Department of Defense to resolve them. The letters remain unanswered.
Calls to the Pentagon by The Oregonian seeking comment on the contract change and the legislation were not returned.
Walden and the delegation acted after reports that the Pentagon was planning to limit Tricare Prime to offices only within 40 miles of military treatment facilities.
The timing might be good. The Senate passed the Defense Authorization bill this week while the House passed its version in May. A conference committee to merge the two bill will be convened giving Walden and Bonamici an opportunity to fold their language into the larger compromise bill.
Because Oregon is barren landscape when it comes to defense installations that change would present an unreasonable hardship to veterans and their families who use Tricare Prime.
As first reported by The Army Times, the Pentagon wants to shrink Tricare Prime, the low-cost HMO-style plan across five Western states. The change means either longer drives or higher copays and additional hassle for thousands of Oregonian military retirees and their families.
An aide to Walden said the change would hit approximately 2,500 retirees out of 8,772 who are enrolled in Tricare Prime. Most effected, he said, would be retirees in southern Oregon and along the I-5 corridor.
While the 40-mile standard "might not have a significant impact in a smaller state, or one with more active-duty military installations, this will have a major impact on Oregon Tricare users," said an Oct. 24 letter to Dr. Jonathon Woodson, assistant Secretary of Defense responsible for Tricare.
The letter was signed by Walden and Bonamici along with Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and Reps. Peter DeFazio, Earl Blumenauer and Kurt Schrader.