Chairman Tester Pushes for Information on Increased TRICARE Co-Pays, Research on Burn Pit Exposure

Defense Department commits to providing information about the effects of higher co-pays on access to physical therapy, mental health care

At a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense hearing on the state of health care in the military, Chairman Jon Tester this week pushed the Department of Defense (DoD) to provide information about the impacts of increased TRICARE premiums on military retirees’ access to critical care including physical therapy and mental health. Additionally, Senator Tester requested access to research being done by DoD on servicemembers and veterans experiencing respiratory illness as a result of exposure to toxic burn pits.

“Can you speak to the impact these increased copays have had on utilization of physical therapy and mental health care under TRICARE?” Chairman Tester asked Dr. Terry Adirim, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs. “…This is information we need to know, and I’ll tell you why: because I’m hearing about it on the ground in Montana. And if I’m hearing it about it, then I’m sure a lot of other senators and representatives are too.”

TRICARE is the health care program for uniformed service members, retirees, and their families, and it has experienced years of cuts leading to higher medical copays, higher pharmacy copays and a Medical Treatment Facility restructuring that is resulting in further out of pocket costs. Changes to the program implemented in 2018 produced increases in TRICARE co-pays for specialty care, which includes physical therapy and mental health, two areas of need that are common in the military and veteran communities. Acting Assistant Secretary Adirim committed to providing Chairman Tester with information about how the increased co-pays were affecting servicemembers’ access to treatment.

“Increased TRICARE co-pays are a burden on Montana’s current and former servicemen and women, particularly for common specialty care like physical therapy and mental health treatment,” said Brad Livingston, Executive Director of the Montana National Guard Association. “Montanans who serve our nation in uniform deserve certainty and fairness in the pay and benefits they earn, and it’s imperative as our nation recovers from the economic impacts of the pandemic. We are grateful for Senator Tester’s commitment to defending the benefits of veterans and members of the military and for working to make sure they are taken care of.”

Additionally, Chairman Tester continued his push to provide veterans suffering from exposure to toxic substances with the health care and benefits they have earned. He pressed Acting Assistant Secretary Adirim to provide the Subcommittee with information the DoD has collected about the effects of toxic burn pit exposure.

“I would like to have you get to me and the committee the research that’s being done on respiratory ailments as it applies to burn pits and I’d ask you to be specific on the respiratory ailments you’re looking at,” said Chairman Tester at the conclusion of the hearing. “It’s a big, big, big issue that’s got some legs this Congress as far as providing benefits to our veterans.”

For years, Tester-who also Chairs the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee-has led the fight to ensure veterans exposed to burn pits and Agent Orange receive the critical medical care they deserve. Last Congress, Tester successfully secured his landmark bill as part of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act establishing a presumption of service-connection for thousands of veterans suffering from Bladder Cancer, Hypothyroidism, and Parkinsonism. Recently, Tester joined Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Ranking Member Jerry Moran in urging ‘decisive action’ from VA Secretary McDonough to include Hypertension to the list of presumptive conditions associated with Agent Orange. He also introduced bipartisan legislation to support veterans who served in Thailand during the Vietnam War-era by allowing them the opportunity to prove toxic exposure in order to qualify for VA benefits.