Veterans vent on possible health fee increase

Navy veteran Russ Johnsen, at an area VFW post, talks about the proposed co-pay increases for veterans’ health care.

Army veteran Larry Hennebery was wounded several times in Vietnam. The 69-year-old says he served his country and doesn't think it's right that military health costs should be targeted for increases under President Barack Obama's far-spreading debt reduction plan.

"I don't see why it should be put on vets' backs to balance his budget," Hennebery said Wednesday inside American Legion Post 147 on James Island.

"If he hadn't done all the stimulus giveaway, he wouldn't be doing this," Hennebery added. "And now he just wants more."

Some veterans around the Lowcountry and nation are reacting negatively to a White House proposal to increase pharmacy co-pays for military and their families, and to also increase medical coverage fees among military retirees as part of a $3 trillion deficit reduction plan.

Under the proposal announced this week, a $200 yearly fee would be imposed on retired military families who want to stay in the Tricare for Life program that supplements Medicare for retirees over 65. Estimates are the change would save at least $6.7 billion over the next decade.

Another prong would be to eliminate the co-pay for mail-order drugs and instead institute a percentage co-pay, rather than a flat fee, for in-pharmacy purchases, according to an analysis by the political news outlet The Hill.

The move would save about $20 billion over the next 20 years as military families get steered toward less expensive prescriptions.

While current retirees would be grandfathered in the present pay structure, the idea that future military retirees and that those on the cusp of leaving are being asked to pay more isn't sitting well with some. They say it sends the wrong message to those who were willing to serve in uniform.

Navy retiree Russ Johnsen, 73, for instance, said he takes a shot every two weeks for arthritis, and that the $8,000 worth of medicine he receives comes with a $9 co-pay. Altering that means altering out-of-pocket expenses for someone else in his situation.

South Carolina is home to about 420,000 military veterans of all wars, or about 9 percent of the state's population of 4.6 million.

Leaders of service groups who represent veterans nationally have already gone on record as opposing the increases and alterations unless there is an offset increase for cost-of-living and pensions.

A person answering the phone at the South Carolina Veteran of Foreign Wars headquarters in Columbia said discussion of the issue has not been brought up.

Republicans in Congress have already voiced opposition to Obama's overall plan.