Two weeks ago, Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) introduced a $9 trillion deficit reduction plan including significant cuts to retired military health benefits. Along with a 90% reduction in funding for tuition assistance for active-duty service members, his proposal includes an increase in out-of-pocket expenses for prescription medications and will dramatically increase health care costs for uninjured veterans. Premiums for those affected would increase nearly tenfold.
There is no escaping the fact that our escalating national debt necessitates significant budget cuts across federal government. However, financing those reductions out of the pockets of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is a violation of a fundamental commitment that taxpayers make to our service members in return for their sacrifice.
Many of the men and women potentially affected by the proposal have been asked to deploy to warzones around the world, often multiple times. They voluntarily place themselves in harm’s way and are separated from their families for months on end. They do so with the understanding that they will be taken care of when they return home, in whatever physical or mental state that might be. Coburn’s proposal allows the government to back out on their end of this deal.
The proposed legislation is particularly alarming when examined in the context of veteran’s care as a whole. The military health care system is strained under the weight of 10 years of combat and lags behind the needs of a new kind of veteran, one who is mentally impacted by their mission like none since the Vietnam era. Physicians are struggling to deal with rising suicide rates. Tricare doesn’t cover comprehensive cognitive rehabilitation for victims of traumatic brain injury. And, as of last year, the Army had just 40 practicing neurologists responsible for the care of a force riddled with patients suffering from PTSD and post concussive symptoms.
At a time when health care spending might very well need to be increased to accommodate demand, Coburn’s proposal moves policy in the wrong direction. While cuts to the Pentagon’s budget are necessary, they need not be to the health care benefits package. Assuming that our future global combat operations scale back as promised, the reprioritization of defense spending initiatives should result in a shift away from the current tempo for future procurement projects. There are finite cuts that can save money in the present, many of which are included in Coburn’s plan. The reduction of permanent overseas personnel, deployed nuclear warheads, and the ordering of smaller quantities of future weapons systems are some options.
Perhaps more importantly, there are institutional reforms that would help soften the fiscal impact of leaving the health benefit system untouched, like reducing limitations to competition during acquisition and improving collaboration between service branches during the procurement process in order to decrease the development of redundant weapons systems. The savings possible at this level could dwarf those realized from cutting health benefits. While Coburn projects his proposed cuts to the benefits for uninjured veterans will save $11.5 billion a year, the Pentagon spent an estimated $46.6 billion on acquisition projects that were cancelled prior to procurement in 2012 alone. Organizational reform, though significantly more difficult to implement than cutting an individual program from the budget, is the best solution to overspending issues.
It is difficult to think of a population more deserving of excellent health care at the expense of the taxpayer than our veterans. There is nothing wrong with trimming the defense budget to address debt issues, but it should be done without affecting the health benefits they are owed, and are already not receiving in full.
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