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February 15, 2000



Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) via NewsEdge Corporation -

House Democrats on Tuesday proposed a health care plan for military personnel and their families that would eliminate co-payments in the government's insurance program for active-duty personnel.

``We made a promise to take care of these career men and women and their families,'' said Missouri Rep. Ike Skelton, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. ``We must keep that promise.''

Sponsors said the plan would cost at least $910 million, far less than a broader Republican measure offered last week and estimated to cost between $8 billion and $10 billion.

Military health care improvements appear to be on the same path in 2000 as the military pay raise and benefits package that became law in 1999. In testimony before Congress last week, Defense Secretary William Cohen called health care ``perhaps the single most important issue we can address this year and in the future.''

About 10 health care proposals are before Congress, committee staff said, and hearings are planned in the spring. The GOP plan already has more than 260 co-sponsors.

A key provision of the bill sponsored by Skelton and fellow Democrats Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii and Gene Taylor of Mississippi would allow Medicare-eligible military retirees over 65 to choose either a military hospital or a Medicare provider in their communities.

Since 1956, military retirees only have had a choice between free care at a military facility or enrolling in an insurance plan, which for most meant the government's Tricare program.

After 65, all retirees are switched to Medicare, which only pays a reimbursement rate of about 75 percent, making it difficult to find providers and forcing many veterans to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket.

The Democrats' measure would extend for one year a demonstration project allowing retirees to voluntarily sign up for the same health care program as federal civilian retirees _ the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program.

The GOP proposal would eliminate the demonstration project and open the civil service plan to any military retiree. For 20-year retirees who entered military service before June 7, 1956, the government would pay 100 percent of costs.

The Democrats' plan would provide all retirees and family members with access to the national mail-order pharmacy program and retail pharmacy, which eliminates the requirement that retirees over 65 use a base pharmacy to fill prescriptions.

The measure also would shave Tricare's out-of-pocket costs for catastrophic care from $7,500 to $3,000 annually. Service members and their families also would be reimbursed for travel costs when they are referred to specialists in faraway places.


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