Admiral Mike Mullen: Cost of military health care is 'not sustainable'

At a Monitor breakfast, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, suggested an increase in co-pays that would affect military retirees and their families. Their co-pays haven't been raised for 15 years. Should they pay more, like other Americans have had to?

Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
U.S. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, at a Monitor breakfast with reporters Sept. 29.

Like business and government in America, the US military is also burdened with the soaring cost of health care. "It's just not sustainable," said Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, at a Monitor breakfast with reporters today.

He ticked off the rocketing rise in the Pentagon's health spending: about $19 billion in 2000-2001, over $50 billion now, an estimated $64 billion in four or five years. One of his answers to the challenge is higher co-payments that apply to military retirees and their families (active-duty personnel don't pay health fees). The co-pays haven't been raised since 1995.

Admiral Mullen, prepare for a tough fight.

While Americans may be in a heightened state of alert about national deficits and debt, Congress has consistently resisted attempts to raise out-of-pocket health costs for the military. Yet "everybody knows that we're being eaten alive by health care," said Robert Gates, the secretary of defense, last month. He plans to include higher premiums in next year's proposed defense budget. Premiums, like co-pays, have not been touched for 15 years.

Personnel costs, including health and retirement benefits, are by far the largest part of the Pentagon's budget. At the breakfast, Mullen said he was "extremely concerned" about rising personnel costs. In August, an independent, high-level panel called for an overhaul of military pay and benefits. But the subject is so explosive, the panel suggested another bipartisan, high-level commission to study the issue and take recommendations to Congress.

If another panel is formed, those commissioners should prepare for a frontal assault by various military groups. This summer, when President Obama's bipartisan debt commission held public hearings, advocates for military veterans and retirees spoke strongly against benefit cutbacks.

"There's a fundamental difference between social insurance programs open to every American, and military benefits earned by decades of service and sacrifice," said Steve Strobridge, director of governmental relations for the Military Officers Association of America.

What Mr. Strobridge raises here is a moral issue: Should the military be treated differently than nonmilitary America when it comes to pay and benefits? The armed forces put their lives, limbs, and mental health on the line for the safety of the country, or they potentially do. And on a practical level, you need strong benefits to recruit and maintain a strong, all-volunteer military.

But here's another moral angle. The debt endangers America's national security because it endangers its economic strength. Sacrifice goes with the territory of being in the armed services, and the military budget needs serious cutting. Should sacrifice not also extend to the defense of the nation's financial health if it's in critical danger?

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