TRICARE Changes Coming for Those Who Join In 2018

Tricare enrollment costs and use fees for currently serving troops and existing retirees escaped congressional reform efforts unchanged, according to the final draft of an annual defense bill unveiled Wednesday.

But future retirees who join the military in 2018 or thereafter will pay higher fees for all Tricare plans.

Tricare reforms proposed over the last year had included a parade of fee increases, many of which put the greatest burden on military retirees. But after months of negotiations, lawmakers produced a toned-down set of reforms that focuses change on the incoming military force instead of those who entered service under current health care plans.

For those currently in the Tricare system, including Tricare Reserve Select and Tricare for Life users, reform focuses primarily on program title change, back end management and limited expansions.

For example, the law eliminates the "Tricare Standard" and "Tricare Extra" options, swapping them out with the newly minted "Tricare Select." But for those who serve before 2018, nothing about the cost structure under the new plan differs from what users pay today under Standard or Extra.

Under expansions in the legislation, Tricare Prime users will be able to access civilian-based urgent care without prior authorization, a program that is currently capped at two visits per year. Military treatment facilities also will expand their primary care business hours and implement a standard appointment scheduling system across all services and facilities nationwide while increasing the number of available appointments.

The legislation also allows the Defense Department to sell durable medical equipment, such as hearing aids, to beneficiaries at cost. Currently, Tricare does not cover hearing aids for retirees.

Those new to the military in 2018, however, will see new cost structures once they hit retirement, including annual enrollment fees of at least $900 per family for the new "Tricare Select" option and $700 for Tricare Prime. Active-duty family users new to the force in 2018 or after will be charged fees for the "Select" plan similar to those charged for active-duty families on Standard today, according to the legislation.

The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the legislation Friday, and the Senate expected to follow suit next week. It wasn't immediately clear whether the president plans to veto the bill. President Obama and members of his cabinet, including Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, have previously threatened to reject the measure over the level of war funding, among other areas of disagreements.