Congressional Debate Over TRICARE Expansion ‘Intensifying’
A "long-simmering battle" over a provision in the Senate fiscal year 2006 Department of Defense authorization bill (S 1043) that would extend military health benefits for National Guard members and reservists is "intensifying" as a conference committee prepares for a potential vote on a final version of the legislation next week, The Hill reports.
At least 85 House members in a letter have asked Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chair of the House Armed Services Committee, and Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), ranking member of the committee, to include the provision in the final bill (Tiron, The Hill, 12/7).
The provision, sponsored by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), would allow National Guard members and reservists who are not on active duty, as well as their families, to enroll in the TRICARE Reserve Select program for a fee. The House version of the defense authorization bill does not include the provision (California Healthline, 11/4).
Opponents say that the provision could cost about $4.6 billion by 2010, but supporters maintain that the provision would cost only $3.8 billion based on calculations made by the Congressional Budget Office.
In the letter, House members wrote that "the role of the reserve components has been transformed to play a central part in providing for national defense." The letter added, "Consistent access to TRICARE will provide an important tool to bolster recruitment, retention, family morale and overall readiness for the Guard and Reserve. We hope you support this provision."
Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), ranking member of the committee, support the provision. They planned to meet with Hunter and Skelton on Tuesday to discuss the provision and other differences between the House and Senate defense authorization bills (The Hill, 12/7).
In related news, CQ HealthBeat on Wednesday examined funds in the fiscal year 2006 appropriations bill (HR 2528) for the Department of Veterans Affairs and military construction allocated for mental health services for veterans. The legislation, which President Bush signed last week, allocates $2.2 billion of the VA health care budget for mental health services for veterans.
In a conference report attached to the bill, lawmakers instructed the VA to establish Post Traumatic Stress Disorder clinical teams at every VA hospital and also create three "Centers of Excellence" for mental health and PTSD treatment at VA hospitals in Waco, Texas; Canandaigua, N.Y.; and San Diego. The VA hospitals in Waco and Canandaigua are designated for potential closure in 2004, and the designation as "Centers for Excellence" would "make it more difficult" to close them, CQ HealthBeat reports (CQ HealthBeat, 12/7).