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What is TRICARE Worth?

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“When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove

for a minute and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity.”

                                               –  Albert Einstein **


“It’s relative” is the plain and simple answer to the question posed by the headline above. There he goes again, you’re saying, what a cop-out! Perhaps, but the actual worth of the TRICARE benefit is difficult to discern.

If you’re a bean counter in the Pentagon’s “Department of Health Care and Other Really Expensive Things That Don’t Explode,” you’ll have one answer (indefensible to any undergraduate who has taken a Cost Accounting course, by the by). If you’re a family member with brain cancer, you obviously will have a much different answer. For most of us, medical insurance is like a safety net for a trapeze artist: you don’t need it until you need it desperately. So, what’s it worth?

Searching for some way to quantify this, I decided to figure out how much our family has saved with TRICARE over the past year. My wife had costs of $0, being active duty, so her medical care (and the pre-natal care for our new baby) isn’t factored in. Here is what TRICARE has done for my four-year-old daughter and me in the last year:

I needed a routine physical, including lab work, as I had not had one roughly since the Wilson Administration.

Billed by the clinic: $1,209.68      Paid by us: $0

I enrolled at the mental health clinic, and go to therapy, on average, 3 ½ times a month (read why here).

Billed by the clinic: $7,022     Paid by us: $0

My daughter needed a well child check-up.

Billed by the clinic: $261     Paid by us: $0

My daughter was sick and required a look-see by the doctor.

Billed by the clinic: $261     Paid by us: $0

I was sick and required a look-see by the same doctor.

Billed by the clinic: $261     Paid by us: $0

My daughter was still sick a month later, and the doctor suspected pneumonia or something more sinister. X-ray and lab work needed.

Billed by the hospital: $1,120     Paid by us: $0

I was still sick a month later. The doctor, noting a trend, assumed I was probably fine (since my daughter’s tests were negative), but ordered an X-ray to be sure.

Billed by the hospital: $712     Paid by us: $0

Each of those X-rays, of course, didn’t include the costs of our visits to the doctor to get the X-rays prescribed.

This being the view from our hospital almost makes one glad to be sick. This view may also have some bearing on the fees charged by said hospital...

Billed by the hospital: $522     Paid by us: $0

The bunion on my left foot was getting to be painful. After an examination, my doctor agreed it looked pretty ugly if nothing else, and wrote a consult for podiatry and possible foot surgery (which I declined to undergo with a kid in the nest and one on the way).

Billed by the clinic: $261     Paid by us: $0

Whilst installing kitchen cabinets I stood up in the wrong place and returned post-haste to the floor, bleeding from a head wound. This being San Francisco, I excited no comment as I sat in the ER waiting room with a bloody bandage on my head shouting numbers at “The Price is Right” on the TV, but I did receive two staples in my head.  

Billed by the hospital:  $2,272     Paid by us: $0

These are the actual numbers taken from our records, and by my calculations, the hospital billed TRICARE a total of $13,901.68, and our out of pocket expense has been $0. So by this crude metric, since August of 2011, our TRICARE benefit has been worth a shade under 14 grand.

But cost and worth are often two different things, as anyone who’s ever shelled out $4 for a bottle of water in Washington, D.C. in August will tell you. What is TRICARE worth to me? The accountant in me says it’s worth $13,379.68. Duh. The anxiety-ridden and (truth be told) slightly hypochondriac father in me says it’s beyond priceless.

I was aware that the answers of a 38-year-old Cubs fan whose pleasure reading includes such titles as The War of the Austrian Succession and Wellington: Pillar of State might not translate to the population as a whole. I therefore conducted a survey of some of my non-military friends to better determine what TRICARE is worth. As with almost all my surveys, this one made my PhD student wife cringe with its unscientificosity. I just made that word up, by the way.

I asked 15 people not affiliated with the military one question: “I don’t pay anything for ‘all-you-can-eat’ health care. How much would that plan be worth to you?” The results were not particularly surprising. 15 respondents replied with some derivative of “You pay how much?” 6 of the 15 followed this up with something unprintable in a family publication. 2 of those 6 followed that up with some choice remarks about my lineage. Working hypothesis: TRICARE benefit is worth a lot. And I need to de-friend 2 people.

Certainly, you can head over to the TRICARE site and figure out how much TRICARE is going to cost you. Ultimately, though, you’ll have to decide what it’s worth. I flatter myself that (reading selections notwithstanding) your answer will ultimately resemble mine. Not having to worry about health care costs is a tremendous burden that active duty families don’t have to carry. Given the stresses we have to face every day, that makes it worth more than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

Of course, it depends on who’s holding the stick…

** Whether or not Einstein said that quote exactly as it appears here or in other words similar to them is debatable. My book of quotations that pre-dates the internet has it this way, and that’s how I’ve cited it.