Prepare for cuts to TRICARE, commissary, PX/BX

Alaska Older Veterans Report

For veterans, seeing temporary politicians take a knife to the military budget is nothing new. For some elected officials, low hanging fruit like retirement pay and TRICARE health care insurance is an easy choice since it directly affects so few voters.

For those of us who began their military career with a “Greeting from Uncle Sam” letter from the draft board, we assumed we had a contract with the federal government. That contract was that if we spend 20 years in the military, we would be rewarded with a pension and free health care.

Well, guess what my fellow veterans? Now that we have completed our service, the federal government’s obligation isn’t as solid as we thought.

The perpetual subcommittees on military budget reduction are once again looking at a redefinition of retirement benefits for new recruits with a ‘‘promise” not to touch current retirees’ benefits. If you believe that line, I have a bridge to sell you in the Mohave.

Some trial balloons that are being floated suggest combining the commissary and Post/Base Exchange systems. The rationale is both serve the same people, purposes, and sell similar items. This proposal is so absurd on its surface, I will only respond by saying the PX/BX system operates without any appropriated funds and provides money to operate MWR facilities for military families.

The commissary, in my humble opinion, has gotten itself into a tail wagging the dog situation that is a solvable internal problem. Service members view commissary privileges as a core benefit that should be off the table.

The 20-year retirement with 50 percent base pay has always been a target. For the uninformed readers, this figure is different than half of the retiree’s last paycheck; it’s closer to a third since housing, specialty pay, and allowances aren’t calculated into base pay. A thrift saving plan like other federal workers’ that is vested after a short period would be an improvement for both the taxpayers and the service members. Only organizations with no financial acumen would ever obligate future generations with a defined benefits plan that automatically increases with the CPI as opposed to a defined contribution plan.

Changing TRICARE benefits has been floated every year since its inception, so brace for cuts. The Affordable Care Act will not be cost neutral and will have to be funded from Medicare and TRICARE recipients. At present, no change to current TRICARE clients is proposed, and I don’t expect to be in the next Congress. Last minute deals, however, have a way of surfacing, so we will be on guard. Military service organizations are the best watchdogs for these clandestine changes so subscribe to all the blogs and newsletters you can. Keep our congressional delegation telephone numbers on speed dial.

Scandal? In the VA?

The Veteran Administration is back in the news so the honeymoon for the new VA Secretary, Robert “Bob” McDonald, must be over. This situation may come as a shock to you, but nothing beyond eye candy has been accomplished. The VA has a new slogan: “I CARE,” and I, for one, feel better already.

According to The Arizona Republic, a snafu caused the selection of one of the key personnel in the investigation process into the Phoenix Veterans Health Care Center, who has a conflict of interest. Karen Craig, the Phoenix VA’s longtime executive secretary, worked directly for the former head, Sharon Helman before Helman was suspended and eventually terminated. Craig handled logistical duties and had no part in witness interviews or the deliberative processes.

Given the pristine track record of the VA reporting system, I cannot understand why anyone would have viewed this as a conflict of interest. The investigation has been suspended until the situation is resolved. I was shocked, shocked to find this out. Say it ain’t so, Joe. This revelation has to rank right up there with Senator Ted Stevens’ federal prosecutors walking free without any punishment for lying and withholding evidence.

As a follow-up, Sharon Helman was not fired for falsifying records and delaying care that cost veterans their life. Her fatal sin was going on a lobbyist-paid junket, just like all members of Congress do every year.

I should sum this article up as SNAFU and FUBAR. Kids, ask your Dad what these acronyms mean.

Mike Dryden is a retired Army Major and current board members of Older Persons Action Group, Inc.