Tricare May Raise Fees; VA Medical Center Uses Telemedicine To Trim Costs

"Of nearly 4.5 million military retirees and their families, about three-quarters are estimated to have access to health insurance through a civilian employer or group. But more than two million of them stay on Tricare," the military's lifetime health insurance program, The New York Times reports. Enrollment in Tricare, which costs less than what many private employers ask for in premiums, is expected to grow "as the costs of private health care continue to climb." Defense Secretary Robert Gates is now considering whether to request Tricare fee increases in next year's budget in order to cut Pentagon spending. "The battle over Tricare pits the efforts of the Pentagon to contain the exploding cost of health care for nearly 10 million eligible beneficiaries against the pain and emotions of those who say they have already 'paid up front' with service in uniform." Tricare, which is expected to cost the Pentagon $65 billion, has not raised its fees since 1995. Veterans groups are campaigning against the fee increases, saying they could negatively impact those disabled in war who can't or don't access free services at veterans' hospitals. Beneficiaries of Tricare include active-duty personnel, retirees, members of the National Guard and Reserves and their families (Bumiller and Shanker, 11/28).

The Charleston Daily Mail: Meanwhile, some VA facilities continue to implement health technology programs. For instance, the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in West Virginia is using a Telehealth program to help patients "communicate their symptoms and vital signs over the telephone" or from the computer at home, allowing nurses at the hospital to track their vital statistics and monitor their health. RN-care coordinators hope to catch "any symptoms of a potential illness early so treatment can be quick and potentially less invasive and less costly." If the patient is in need of help, that patient's primary care physician is called upon to decide the best course of treatment. The Telehealth program, which also allows nurses to monitor conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and congestive heart failure; is one of several high tech programs run by the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center — another is Teledermatology, which allows a physician to examine patients via a camera system. An operations manager for the medical center said the new technology saves the VA money by cutting down on preventable hospitalizations (11/29).

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