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GOP plans healthcare cuts for vets
Navy Times
By Rick Maze
Times staff writer
September 21, 2005

A group of House Republicans have proposed a plan to offset the costs of relief and rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina that includes trimming military quality-of-life programs, including health care.

Possible sources of funding cuts to free up money for Katrina relief include reduced health benefits, consolidation of the three military exchange systems and the closure of the military's stateside school system.

The House Republican Study Committee, headed by Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., is not singling out the military as it tries to raise the estimated $200 billion that the federal government will need for various Katrina-related spending.

Their proposal includes freezing congressional pay, charging federal workers for parking and cutting back on legislative earmarking — items added to agency budgets by lawmakers — as ways of raising money.

They call their effort "Operation Offset,' and hope to get spending cuts considered before Congress approves any more money devoted to Katrina relief and recovery operations.

Their offset list includes three provisions aimed at military quality-of-life programs:

• Service members would be offered cash if they are willing to accept reduced health care benefits for their families. "The less comprehensive plan would encourage individuals to be more cost-conscious when purchasing health care products by including deductibles, co-payments and a maximum annual out-of-pocket expenditure limit,' according to a written explanation provided by the study group. Reduced health care benefits could save $2.4 billion over 10 years.

• The three separate military exchange systems could be consolidated, saving up to $1.9 billion over 10 years, the study group says. The Army and Air Force share an exchange system, AAFES, while the Navy and Marine Corps have their own systems. "Consolidating … would eliminate inefficiencies from duplicative purchasing, different personnel departments, warehouse and inventory systems and management headquarters while retaining the current ability for service embers and their families to receive a wide selection of goods at a low price,' the statement says.

The Pentagon has studied the idea of exchange consolidation for years but has been unable to overcome bureaucratic obstacles and opposition from some service officials and industry groups. Several studies of the issue also have raised questions about how much money would be saved.

• The stateside system of elementary and secondary schools for military family members could be closed, saving $788 million over 10 years, the study says.

"This provision would phase out these domestic schools over time and shift these military children into the local public school systems,' the study group says.

The Pentagon also has been studying this idea, but has faced strong opposition from parents of children attending the schools because public schools are seen as offering lower-quality education.

So far, the Bush administration has not endorsed any plan to pay for hurricane relief, although President Bush has suggested that reducing spending is one obvious option.

At the administration's request, Congress already has approved $62 billion in Katrina spending by simply adding it to the national debt, because other money is not available and no offsets were approved as part of the legislation.

White House budget officials met Tuesday with Senate Republicans to talk about Katrina relief plans but provided no recommendations on possible offsetting cuts in other programs to cover costs, according to senators who attended the closed-door meetings.