By JIM ABRAMS

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) via NewsEdge Corporation -

A consensus is growing in Congress that it's time to fix what many say is a broken promise of lifetime health benefits for military retirees. Still undecided is how big, and how costly, the fix should be.

Speaking of the current military retiree health care system, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said: ``We can no longer squeeze blood from this stone. It is empty.''

Lott, joined by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., and several Democratic leaders, is behind a bill that would do for military retirees what he is so far unwilling to do for all older Americans: ensure prescription drug benefits.

The majority leader's bill would expand the Pentagon's mail-order pharmacy program for service families living far from military hospitals to all Medicare-eligible military retirees and their dependents, about 8 million people. But they first would pay a $150 annual deductible.

President Clinton wants to provide all 39 million Medicare recipients with up to $1,000 a year in prescription drugs initially, at a cost to each of $26 a month in premiums. Republicans have balked; they say two-thirds of Medicare beneficiaries already have private prescription coverage.

For military retirees, Lott's bill also would make improvements in Tricare, the HMO-like health care program used by many retirees and the families of active-duty service members, and extend some other benefits.

Lott calls his program ``a reasonable and prudent first step'' to ``correct the broken promise of lifetime health care to our military retirees and veterans.''

Others contend that it falls short. It ``does not do enough to reform the military health care delivery system for our veterans,'' said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Navy retiree.

The former presidential hopeful said retirees he met in his travels spoke of long waiting periods, lack of access to proper care and drugs and the failure of the government to live up to its commitments.

Currently, 20-year retirees are entitled to free care at military facilities on space-available basis, or they can join a Tricare program. At 65, all retirees are switched to Medicare.

Veterans complain that the closing of bases has reduced access to military hospitals by 40 percent, that many health-care providers are reluctant to deal with Tricare because of poor efficiency and low reimbursement rates and that Medicare doesn't pay for drugs.

``This problem of access has been going on since the base closures began in the mid-1980s, and they are still trying to do incremental change,'' said Mark Olanoff of the Retired Enlisted Association, which supports more fundamental reform.

When today's retirees entered the service, ``They were told straight out that a prime element of their compensation for serving 20 years would be free health care for life,'' said Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga. The current system, he said, is ``an inexcusable breach'' of that promise.

``In the military a lot of what you do is on blind trust,'' said Steve Robertson, legislative director for the American Legion. If that trust is violated, he said, it's going to be hard to recruit and retain service members.

The American Legion, he said, believes better access to the VA health care system, which now gives priority to veterans with service-related disabilities, is smarter than putting more money into Tricare.

Norwood is sponsoring bipartisan legislation that would allow retirees who entered the service before 1956 to enroll in the health care program for federal civilians, the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program, with the government paying 100 percent of costs. Cost estimates for the bill run in the $8 billion to $10 billion a year range.

``So what?'' Norwood said. ``That absolutely means nothing to me. We gave our word.''

David Burrelli of the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, contends in a report on military health care that Congress never authorized free health care for life for military retirees. He said three recent court cases have rejected retiree claims seeking free care at military facilities as a right or entitlement.

But Defense Secretary William Cohen said in recent congressional testimony: ``We have made a pledge. Whether it's legal or not, it's a moral obligation that we will take care of all those who served.''

 

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