Study: Most Troops Say Military Paying Too Much For Lifetime Healthcare

A study due out this week finds troops value pay hikes, selecting duty stations over some benefits.

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U.S. servicemen take part in a change of command ceremony in the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing at the US transit center in Manas airport, 30 km outside the Kyrgyzstan's Bishkek, on June 13, 2012.

U.S. military personnel and their dependents believe lifetime healthcare coverage isn't worth the high price the Pentagon pays for it, preferring instead pay hikes over other potential benefits changes.

Those are but two findings in a new Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments report due out Thursday that surveyed 2,600 active and retired military personnel about the Defense Department's compensation system. DOTMIL obtained a summary of the study on Tuesday.

The CSBA study reveals 80 percent of those surveyed "place a high value" on their basic salaries, particularly troops at the lowest end of the pay scale.

"A dollar spent increasing basic pay for junior enlisted has more than six times the impact than a dollar spent increasing basic pay for senior officers," CSBA concludes.

As Pentagon advisory groups, think tanks and lawmakers warn about the skyrocketing costs of the military's personnel programs, troops at all points in a typical career span say they "do not value free TRICARE for Life commensurate with what it costs DOD to provide," states the coming report, led by CSBA's Todd Harrison. TRICARE is the name of the military's healthcare program, and even former servicemembers who've been out of the military for years and have jobs in the private sector can keep their family covered under the program for life.

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Over 80 percent of those surveyed tell the think tank they would trade certain retirement policy changes for a 1 percent pay hike now.

As the Pentagon faces shrinking yearly budgets, Pentagon officials and analysts are calling for major reforms to personnel costs, warning that if cuts aren't made there won't be enough money to buy combat hardware.

The Pentagon's retirement benefits bill will only get larger after 2014, creating a major financial problem as annual military spending is slated to decline after a decade of war.

Yearly military retirement payments alone are expected to more than double by 2035, growing from $52.2 billion in 2011 to $116.9 billion, according to an estimate prepared by the Defense Business Board, which reports directly to the defense secretary. The Pentagon spends about 75 percent of its $500 billion budget on personnel.

Another Washington think tank, the Bipartisan Policy Center, issued its own report last month that raised eyebrows with this conclusion: The Pentagon soon will spend more on health care and other benefits for former military personnel than on troops in uniform today. A group composed of former defense officials concluded that in 2014 the "cost of veterans' benefits will exceed [the] amount spent on active-duty troops."

Notably, the coming CSBA study finds the troops surveyed place the highest value not on any of their increasingly expensive healthcare or benefits, but on their ability to choose where they next will serve and for how long.

"Officers and senior enlisted with dependents tend to value this benefit more than their peers without dependents," CSBA concludes.

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at jbennett@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter.

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