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Panetta ties TRICARE fee increases to maintaining key programs, personnel

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At a Pentagon press briefing on Monday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said congressional tinkering with the $613 billion 2013 Defense Department budget could have unintended consequences and result in a hollow force. Flanked by Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Panetta also defended the long-term Defense strategy unveiled in January, saying it will help the Pentagon to slash its budget by $487 billion over the next 10 years.

In March, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the House Budget Committee, told a National Journal forum that senior military commanders were dishonest in presenting Congress with a budget request he doesn't believe they fully support. After Dempsey charged Ryan with calling senior military leaders liars, Ryan backed off and said, "I really misspoke."

While not addressing Ryan directly, Panetta emphasized that the department's military leadership backed both the 2013 budget and the Defense strategy, which aims to develop a lean, postwar force focused on the Asia-Pacific region and enabled by technology, especially cyber, space and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems.

Panetta said the 2013 budget is a "zero-sum game" and any changes to it will require cuts in key systems and projects that support the long-term strategy.

The budget includes increases in fees for the Defense TRICARE health insurance program ranging from $35 to $155 per month for military retirees in an effort to curb spiraling health care costs. Defense Comptroller Robert Hale said in February that these increases, after four years, would boost retiree health care costs to just under $2,000 a year, compared with the $4,000 per year federal civilian employees pay.

The National Association for Uniformed Services called on Congress today to stop the increase in TRICARE fees. Retired Marine Lt. Gen. Jack Klimp, NAUS President and chief executive officer, said, "It's an outrage to hear DoD tell military retirees that the costs for promised benefits are squeezing out available resources for our national defense."

Panetta said if Congress does not go along with the TRICARE fee increases this will amount to a $13 billion hit to the long-term Defense budget, which could affect readiness and possibly lead to reductions in troop strength.

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