Piedmont Triad, NC -- Retired military veterans and their beneficiaries will see their medical benefits change by the end of the year.
The military health insurance policy called TRICARE Prime will no longer be available to beneficiaries who do not live near military hospitals. Those affected will automatically be enrolled into a higher cost program called TRICARE Standard, which relies on beneficiaries paying out-of-pocket medical expenses until they reach a $3,000 cap.
According to the Secretary of Defense's office, some 170,000 service members and their families will be affected by the change.
One of them is retired Air Force veteran Mark Tyler in Lexington, NC. He told WFMY News 2 that he was in shock when he first read the letter and now he's worried about his family's bottom line.
"It really makes you feel like our government isn't supporting us," Tyler said. After 20 years in the air force, the last thing Tyler says he thought he'd be fighting for is affordable health care. "Sometimes we would work for 6 months, 12 hours a day, 7 days a week to get airplanes ready," he said, recalling his years in service.
"I don't mind paying my share. But now they want to take that away from me."
According to a letter from the Department of Defense, starting October 1, 2013 Tyler has to give up his current health insurance. The department will replace it by automatically enrolling him and the other 170,000 people affected, into a higher cost policy - assuming they are up-to-date on their fees.
Right now the DoD says retired veterans and their beneficiaries pay about $538 a year to register for TRICARE Prime. Tyler then has a $12 co-pay for each doctor visit. But all that goes away come October.
Under the new plan, TRICARE Standard, he will have to pay 20% of each medical bill until he hits that $3,000 cap; the DoD then steps in and covers the full bill.
"It was a lot of emotions because all of a sudden what we've had for years and years, they are saying we can't have," Tyler said about opening the letter for the first time earlier this month.
Of the 170,000 retired military beneficiaries affected, more that 14,000 are in North Carolina based on data from DoD.
"We held up what we said we would do and we served our country for over 20 years and this is a lot of people, and yet they are not holding up their end of the bargain afterwards," Tyler said in frustration.
Austin Camacho with the Secretary of Defense office explains the change will help control costs. He also says, the new plan was supposed to take effect in 2007 but the plan fell apart after protests. When the new changes do kick in later this year, beneficiaries will still receive free preventative care like mammogram and flu shots.
Camacho also explains that after a legal review, lawyers found that the Department made no "official" promise of free health care to retired veterans -- even though some like Tyler believe otherwise.
For the retired vet, the change looks to be another slap in the face.
"Little things eroding away as time goes on, they give us a little less insurance, they charge us a little more, constantly. And I understand that there are costs involved but this was the plan that went forward. Why not stick with what you told us," he said. "This makes a big hardship in the family. And it changes everything."
Tyler explains that even though the original letter he received about the change explicitly said there would be no changes to his prescription drug coverage, a week later he received another letter explaining that those costs will go up slightly.
Click the hyperlink to find out more about the TRICARE changes.