I’ve been in contact with John Noonan all weekend. Noonan is the Romney campaign’s Defense Policy Adviser. I’ve been trying to get answers to your questions from the Romney campaign in regards to veterans’ issues and John has been very helpful. This is the result of our conversations;
Will a Romney Administration reverse the odious hikes to Tricare out-of-pocket costs for military retirees? Good question. President Obama asked for $11 billion in TRICARE fee increases, fees that would ostensibly be passed on to military retirees. The House of Representatives thought the hike was a bad idea, and largely neutralized it by tying any increase in Tricare to cost of living adjustments. That bill was passed in May but we’re still waiting for Senator Reid to take it up in the Senate. So the battlespace will remain shaky until we know what are the exact fee increases. Congress is out until after the election, so my guess is that this happens in the lame-duck session.
But there’s a larger point here. The philosophy that guides Governor Romney on troops and veterans is two-fold. First, he’s a promise-keeper. His record in Massachusetts is sound evidence to that point. Second, he believes that a promise was made to our military veterans and families when they volunteered for service, and that promise must be kept. If we’re going to keep faith with the military and veterans community, you have to do more than go through the motions. You have to improve on care where care has faltered, you have to restore faith where faith was lost, and you have incentivize a new generation of volunteers who are willing to take an oath on behalf of our shared security. There’s consequences if you don’t meet those obligations, both morally and strategically.
Will the Tricare surplus remain for Tricare and not used to fund air craft carriers? It was wrong to propose huge TRICARE fee hikes when you have a surplus in that account. But keep in mind that the surplus was approximately $800 million, when the TRICARE bump requested by President Obama was $11 billion dollars. If only that money was used towards something like Navy ships! At least more ships in the fleet would reduce the time our sailors spend away from their families. I note that the USS Eisenhower, an aircraft carrier, is on a 9 month deployment rather than the more typical 6 month rotation. My dad pulled WESTPAC tours on the USS Enterprise during the Cold War, and I know that’s a hell of a long separation time. We’re also cutting 100,000 troops out of service to comply with President Obama’s defense cuts. Another 100,000 will probably go if sequestration is triggered. To that point, a deployment in Afghanistan is typically twice as long as a Navy tour. So yes, we have some money that could be used to ease the strain on deployed forces, whether it’s in decreasing dwell time or adjusting TRICARE. But instead, the money is going to pay for huge increases in the size of federal government. Governor Romney is a firm believer in the U.S. military. In addition to stopping defense cuts, he plans to increase shipbuilding from 9 to 15 ships a year, add 100,000 troops to the force, and increase spending to the base defense budget as war costs come down. When I was in the Air Force, I experienced the dreaded reduction-in-force boards, and know there’s an awful lot of uncertainty in the military ranks that go beyond health care costs. It’s my hope that the Governor’s election, and reemphasis on our national defense, will throw a wrench into fears about RIF boards, retirement, and separation times.
The president promised the American Legion convention last year that he wouldn’t “balance the budget on the backs of veterans.” While he was making that promise, his SecDef was doing just that. Can Romney make the same promise without reneging on it? President Obama has nearly doubled spending at the Department of Veterans Affairs in four years. But he’s focused on inputs rather than outputs. His emphasis is on how much taxpayer money you can pump into bureaucracies. Governor Romney’s emphasis is the opposite. What are the taxpayers getting out of government agencies – particularly the VA? For example, the VA’s struggled to provide timely care in the past four years. The backlog for disability claims has become a terrible problem. It is reaching one million overdue claims. Same with the waitlist for veterans to see a mental health care provider. The Governor has made reforming the VA a priority. He’s talked about common sense solutions, like directing sources to health care providers and claims adjudicators, rather than nameless administrators and bureaucrats. He will hold VA officials accountable for poor performance and mismanagement, which regrettably is becoming the standard rather than the exception. He doesn’t believe in giving out senior executive bonuses for poor performance when you’ve got a sergeant with post-traumatic stress waiting 60 days to see a therapist. The Governor has advocated simple, common sense technical reforms to the VA like creating a single electronic medical record from boot camp to retirement, so we’re not burning precious time mailing heavy paper medical files across the country. And with incidents of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury on the rise, plus an average 18 veterans a day committing suicide, a waitlist of 2 months to see a mental health provider is unacceptable. The Governor’s solution is to provide veterans access to the TRICARE network of mental health care professionals at the VA’s expense. This doubles the number of mental health care providers available to the VA overnight. It’s outrageous that bureaucratic inertia is standing in the way of fixing this problem, when we already have the resources at our disposal to make meaningful progress on fighting TBI, PST, and veteran suicide. Finally, President Obama’s defense cuts are projected to force up to 200,000 troops out of service. Those unfortunate enough to be separated will become new VA customers. If you think the VA is struggling to meet demand now, just wait will we start forcing that many bodies onto an already overburdened system. It won’t be pleasant to watch.
Will a Romney administration stop shutting down Tricare Prime? Basically, will the Romney Administration keep the promises that the government made to veterans? We fulfilled our end of the bargain and all we want is what we earned. I haven’t heard of any proposal to shutdown Tricare Prime from either campaign, ours or the President’s. But this does speak to the larger importance of keeping faith and honoring promises. There’s both a strong moral and strategic case to be made here. Start breaking promises, and it’s going to be much harder to attract quality people to staff an all-volunteer military.
Defense Policy Advisor
Romney for President, Inc
My thanks to John for taking the time to answer the questions we haven’t otherwise heard from the campaign. I especially appreciate that he took the time to do this while the campaign is focused on the debate tonight.