VETERANS’ HEALTH: House Approves Drug Benefit for Retirees
Hoping to improve TRICARE, the health plan for retired veterans and military dependents, the House yesterday approved as part of a $310 billion defense bill, provisions to expand health care and prescription drug access, the AP/Las Vegas Sun reports (5/18). Under one provision, a mail-order prescription drug service currently available to active military personnel would be opened to all military retirees. The mail-order program offers prescriptions for as little as $8 per 90-day supply. Additionally, the House bill would give retirees a drug benefit through the military's health insurance program, allowing them to buy prescriptions at "more modest discounts" at contracted pharmacies (Rubin, Los Angeles Times, 5/19). If approved by the Senate, the measure also would make "permanent and nationwide" a 1997 pilot program that opened military health facilities to retirees 65 and older. Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) objected to the proposal, contending that "military hospitals don't have the space or the training to treat a large population of elderly veterans," but amendment sponsor Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) said that the provision would help the military fulfill its promise of "a lifetime of free health care" for veterans (AP/Las Vegas Sun, 5/18).
In other military health news, "large backlogs and long waits for decisions" persist at the Veteran Benefits Administration, despite "years of study" to improve the problems, according to a report issued yesterday by the General Accounting Office. Last year, veterans waited an average of 205 days for a processed claim, much longer than the VA's goal of 74 days. And by year's end, 69,000 claims -- more than a third of which had been pending for more than six months -- were waiting. These claims did not include appeals requests. Requested by Rep. Bill McCollum (R- Fla.), the report also revealed that "nearly one-third [of claims decisions made] are incorrect or have technical or procedural errors." GAO investigators attributed the backlog to the complex claims process, increased claims by veterans and the retirement of many experienced workers. VA officials defended the department, arguing that the "agency has a long way to go but 'has made considerable progress.'" Thomas called on Congress to simplify complicated veterans benefits laws in order to speed up reforms (Gowda, St. Petersburg Times, 5/19).