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Monday, October 16, 2000

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Ben Porter and his wife, Jeanne, smile their approval
of Congress's action on health care.

Veterans elated:
Promise honored
at long last

Congress has voted to cover
their family health
care needs

By Gregg K. Kakesako

When Ben Porter was commissioned in 1941, the military promised that his health needs would always be met -- something he always believed would be a lifelong benefit.

But that wasn't the case for Porter and many of the 15,000 military retirees in Hawaii.

Since he retired from the Navy in 1972 after 32 years of service, Porter, who celebrated his 82nd birthday on Oct. 11, has had to pay about $180 a month in supplemental medical health insurance for himself and his wife Jeanne, 71.

However, all that changed on Thursday after the U.S. Senate, following a vote by the House a day earlier, approved legislation designed to replace the current approach to veteran's health care coverage. "They finally came through and will honor the commitment they made when I first came in," said Porter, who moved to Hawaii in 1982.

Indiana Rep. Stephen Buyer, who spearheaded the move in the U.S. House, said the measure contained in this year's version of the Defense Authorization bill is "keeping America's promise to veterans."

Rep. Neil Abercrombie, a member of the House Armed Services Committee who helped draft the original proposals, said: "We have unfulfilled obligations to active duty personnel, retirees and their families. Military life makes heavy demands on those in uniform and their families.

"If we hope to recruit and retain the men and women we send in harm's way, they need to know that they and their families will receive quality health care -- now and during their retirement years."

The military's new health care proposal, estimated to cost $60 billion over the next decade, will expand what is now known as Tricare to include retirees with at least 20 years of service.

Currently under Tricare, military retirees like Porter were dropped from the program as soon as they became eligible for Medicare at age 65.

That meant Porter and his colleagues had to depend on a combination of supplemental health insurance coverage and finding a military hospital that would treat them on a space-available basis.

But the space availability was quickly vanishing with the drawdown after the end of the Cold War, and the military was closing more bases nationwide.

"Basically, they were cutting billets where they were taking care of military retirees," said Porter who moved to the islands from Virginia.

After serving for five years in the Pacific campaign on two destroyers and as a commander of the destroyer division, Porter made the Navy a career.

The Pentagon now has a year to establish the program which would begin Oct. 1, 2001.

Worldwide, there are about 1.4 million military retirees and their family members who will be affected by the change. The new entitlement program would provide them with free inpatient and outpatient health care coverage.

The plan also expands the Department of Defense's mail order and retail pharmacy program to allow participation by all beneficiaries -- without enrollment fees. Beneficiaries would pay $8 for a 90-day mail order supply of a prescription drug. Using a Tricare pharmacy, they would make a 20 percent co-payment.

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