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Columbia, S.C. - Emerging from more than a decade at war, military families are confronting a new worry at home: the prospect that a deal between Congress and the White House over federal spending cuts could chip away at military health insurance, pensions and other services long considered untouchable.
"It's a fear of the unknown, and it's worse when members of your family might be deployed," says military spouse Jeremy Hilton, of Burke, Va., who cares for a disabled child while his wife serves as an active duty Air Force officer. "We are all worried about what will happen. It could cut things my family really relies on."
If Congress and President Barack Obama don't agree on spending cuts by Jan. 1, a package of across-the-board cuts would take effect that would hit the military heavily. If they do agree on steps to ward off those cuts and stop automatic tax increases, it's likely the military will still see reduced spending, but more targeted. The talks about the so-called fiscal cliff are ongoing and details of what could be cut have not emerged.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey have warned it would be devastating to the all-volunteer force if the Pentagon were forced to make billion-dollar cuts in a short-order fashion.
"It makes all us peons crazy," said Hilton, 40. "If our military leadership says it would be a problem, we are all worried about what would happen. We rely on our military community, on our military infrastructure, for support."
Because President Obama has said the paychecks and housing benefits of the uniformed military would not be affected if the fiscal cliff talks fail and automatic cuts start, defense experts say the cuts will fall most heavily on civilian Pentagon employees and contractors. Reducing their numbers would directly affect active duty military and their families because those civilians provide much of the day-to-day staff for base services including hospitals, day care facilities, commissaries and even the guards who man many of the gates.
JD Brunson, 47, whose spouse retired as a master sergeant after 24 years in the Air Force, says she and her 56-year-old husband contribute to their military health insurance by paying $41 monthly.
Brunson said the military insurance covered everything for her husband's cancer surgery, which she said cost them only $100 even though it tallied a $99,000 bill. The Columbia resident says she is a certified nursing assistant and her husband does maintenance work for a local church and they still rely on the military health insurance, since their work doesn't provide such beneficial insurance.
"It's vital to us," she says. "It's owed us."
The automatic spending cuts and tax increases that would go into effect in January fall heavily on the Department of Defense, slashing some $500 billion from future defense spending. So far, the lame-duck Congress and the White House have been unable to come up with an agreement that works around the $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts. These cuts would come on top of some $487 billion in spending reductions set to take effect over the coming 10 years.
One of the potential targets to budget cutters is the military's health care system known as Tricare. It provides health coverage to some 10 million active duty men and women, retirees, reservists and their families. Costs for the program have skyrocketed from $19 billion to $53 billion in the Pentagon's latest budget request, making it a possible target.