FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Congress has approved a 3.7 percent pay raise and some new benefits for military personnel and retirees.
The House on Tuesday agreed with a Senate bill that would boost the monthly payments that veterans can receive while attending college.
But that was overshadowed by a number of broad new health benefits for military retirees.
Congress voted last week to give full military health benefits, starting next fall, to retirees over age 65.
As it stands now, military retirees over 65 are eligible for Medicare, just as all other Americans that age. But the military health care program, known as Tricare, provides more services. Some of their family members are eligible, too.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates the extended benefits will cost the federal government about $5.5 billion in fiscal 2003, rising to $9 billion in 2010. The total cost will run about $60 billion over the course of a decade.
The money would come from a new trust fund, so Congress won't appropriate the money each year.
''We are delivering on the promises that have been made to military retirees,'' Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said in a prepared statement.
The change is a step toward solving a nationwide dispute over veterans' health benefits, said Greg Thom, Young's spokesman.
''This has been a long-term issue for military retirees,'' Thom told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. ''They believed they were guaranteed lifetime health coverage.''
Under the new rules, which are to begin Oct. 1, 2001, military retirees age 65 or over will have to pay the standard $600 for a Medicare Part-B policy to get coverage. That will get them all the benefits of Tricare, though, including prescription drugs.
The legislation also caps the annual out-of-pocket expenses for retirees at $3,000, down from $7,500.
Those expenses include travel, Thom said, which could be a significant change for Alaskans.
Chiropractic benefits will be phased in over the next five years.
But the changes won't make all the problems disappear.
Veterans no longer can use military facilities for their medical care when they turn 65 and become eligible for Medicare, Thom said. That means changing doctors and other services, he said.
Congress has approved a pilot program allowing military facilities to serve retirees over 65, but none of the test sites is in Alaska, Thom said.
A Senate bill passed Tuesday in the House would boost college benefits for veterans to $650 per month, a 21 percent increase. The money goes to veterans who are taking at least 12 credits at the college level.
The benefit goes only to those who agreed to a $100-per-month pay cut in their first 12 months of active duty. Under the new legislation, veterans also will be able to buy more benefits.
By kicking in an additional $50 per month for 12 months, they can get an extra $150 for three years after discharge. Also, the legislation lets older veterans, who signed up under an earlier program, to buy into the current one for $2,700.
Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska and a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said the increased college benefits were intended to adjust for the rising cost of higher education.
''It was time for Congress to step up and help out our veterans with one of the most important benefits they receive for their service,'' he said.
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