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Military's Health Care Costs Booming

Gregg Zoroya

Former Army helicopter pilot Tammy Duckworth, who was injured in Iraq, shakes hands with Army Sgt. Derick Hurt after being sworn in as assistant secretary for Department of Veterans at a ceremony at Walter Reed Army Medical Center on May 20, 2009. ( H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY)

WASHINGTON — Military health care spending is
rising twice as fast as the nation's overall health care costs,
consuming a larger chunk of the defense budget as the Pentagon
struggles to pay for two wars, military budget figures show.

The surging costs are prompting the Pentagon and
Congress to consider the first hike in out-of-pocket fees for military
retirees and some active-duty families in 15 years, said Rear Adm.
Christine Hunter, deputy director of TRICARE, the military health care

Pentagon spending on health care has increased from $19 billion in 2001 to a projected $50.7 billion in 2011, a 167% increase.

The rapid rise has been driven by a surge in
mental health and physical problems for troops who have deployed to war
multiple times and by a flood of career military retirees fleeing
less-generous civilian health programs, Hunter said.

Total U.S. spending on health care has climbed
from nearly $1.5 trillion in 2001 to an estimated $2.7 trillion next
year, an 84% increase.

As a share of overall defense spending, health
care costs have risen from 6% to 9% and will keep growing, said Navy
Lt. Cmdr. Kathleen Kesler, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

That upward trend is "beginning to eat us alive," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress in February.

In addition to mental issues, multiple combat
tours have created more strains on joints, backs and legs, Pentagon
statistics show. Medical visits for such problems rose from 2.8 million
in 2005 to 3.7 million in 2009.

Behavioral-health counseling sessions for troops
and family members rose 65% since 2004. The Pentagon paid for 7.3
million visits last year — treatment of 140,000 patients each week,
according to TRICARE numbers.

Other factors driving up costs:


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• Many new patients are children suffering
anxiety or depression because of a parent away at war. Children had 42%
more counseling sessions last year than in 2005, TRICARE numbers show.

• The number of TRICARE beneficiaries has grown
by 370,000 in the past two years to 9.6 million troops, family members
and military retirees.

• Nearly 200,000 prescriptions were filled each day at civilian pharmacies last year.

Active-duty troops and their families receive
free health care except for out-of-pocket co-payments of $3 or $9 per
prescription at civilian pharmacies.

Retirees receive the same benefits by paying
$230 a person or $460 a family each year, along with small co-payments
for various types of care. The fees have not gone up since 1995. By
contrast, private insurance plans try to limit expenses with frequent
increases in premiums and copayments

"I want to be generous and fair to all those who serve, but there's a cost-containment problem," Sen. Lindsey Graham,
R-S.C., said at a recent hearing. "I don't see how we can sustain this
forever, where TRICARE is never subject to adjustment in terms of the
premiums to be paid."

Hunter said higher out-of-pocket expenses are being explored by the Pentagon, too.

"The difference this year is that we see members
of Congress saying we need to have a thoughtful discussion," Hunter
said. "Where's the balance here? We want to be grateful for people's
service, absolutely. But the costs are up. What's fair?"

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