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Military Health Care Budget Challenge for Pentagon


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WASHINGTON (Aug. 10) -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates' vow to shut a major military command and eliminate thousands of contractor jobs to plug a "gusher of defense spending" will do little to reduce the Pentagon budget but will prove a breeze compared with cutting military health care costs.

Military analysts, including several who met privately with Gates this week, said that the uproar from Virginia officials over the closing of the U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) in Norfolk and the firing of defense contractors in the Washington suburbs will pale next to the national umbrage expected when it's time to tackle personnel costs.

"There are no sacred cows," Gates told reporters. "Everybody knows that we're being eaten alive by health care." Noting that military health care will cost $50 billion in 2011 and will rise to $65 billion by 2015, he said, "It's unsustainable, and therefore it has to be a part of our effort."

Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images
Defense Secretary Robert Gates announces his effort to strip billions from the Pentagon budget during a news conference at the Pentagon on Monday.

Good luck with that. When Maren Leed, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, spoke with congressional staffers about cutting military benefits, they told her, "It is the hardest possible thing, just short of world peace. Both sides of the aisle agree it's just not possible."

Cutting benefits for service members and veterans -- health care, pensions and other perks -- may be the only thing more politically perilous than advocating that spending on seniors be reined in.

"While we understand DOD's need to reduce spending, the American Legion doesn't want it to be at the expense of our troops overseas or our veterans at home," said the the group's executive director, Peter Gaytan. "They have already earned health care and other benefits through their military service."

Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said, "The political climate for even having a rational discussion about military benefits is tenuous."

She said Congress missed an opportunity to confront soaring personnel costs when "both parties cordoned off defense" during the national health care reform debate. There were false rumors that President Barack Obama's plan included the TRICARE system for active duty and retired military.

"It's the political third rail," said Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information. To ask military families to take on the same out-of-pocket costs as civilians or tinker with the Pentagon's generous retirement system "would need real leadership," he said. "Sadly, that leadership is completely absent. I can't think of a single member on the armed services committees who would have the ethics and political courage to take this on."snip
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