Robert Gates Says Healthcare Costs Hurt Defense Budget

Unless we tackle this problem, we'll put a severe strain on the military budget and ballooning the deficit.

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Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is not afraid to say it: “Healthcare costs are eating the Defense Department alive.”

But many in Congress are ignoring the elephant in the room. No politician, after all, wants any part of “going after” our veterans. The amount of sacrifice, especially during two wars, coming home severely wounded, physically and mentally, putting their lives on the line--this deserves not only parades but pay and benefits. No one should question the importance of taking care of our wounded veterans. [See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.]

But that is not what Secretary Gates is talking about.

Healthcare costs as part of the defense budget have gone from $19 billion in 2001 to about $55 billion now, about a tenth of the total. And the possibilities for more rapid increases are truly frightening to Gates and others.

Right now, the over two million families enrolled in the lifetime health insurance system, Tricare, pay $460 per family per year for health insurance. An individual pays $230 per year. These fees have not been raised in 15 years. Active duty military, of course, get healthcare at no cost, so these are the fees for retirees only. [Read more about national security and the military.]

It should be pointed out, too, that copays for prescription drugs are extremely generous as well, $3 for generics and $9 for brand drugs. And, of course, Veterans Affairs hospital services for wounded veterans are without charge, as they should be. But, at a time when states and localities are going after public employees with a vengeance it seems odd that policy makers and politicians would not want to take up the costs of military healthcare. [See photos of the protests in Madison, Wisconsin.]

Secretary Gates proposes modest increases in the yearly Tricare fee from $1,260 to $2,460 depending on income. There is a proposal to increase the copays by a few dollars. Some would require that members of the military go on Medicare at 65. For many of the military who retired in their late 30s, 40s or even 50s and have moved into the civilian work force, it seems a pretty nice perk to only pay $460 a year in medical insurance.

Unless we tackle this problem, we will be putting a severe strain on the military budget and ballooning the deficit to a much greater extent than any of the myriad of programs the Tea Party is intent on cutting. Isn’t it time we paid attention to at least one of the major elephants in the room?

  • Read more about national security and the military.
  • See editorial cartoons about the Tea Party.
  • See photos of the Afghan election.