Court Decision Affirms Lifetime Benefits for Retired Military
A federal appeals court panel ruled earlier this month that two military retirees who served for more than 20 years are entitled to "free, lifetime health benefits" that they were promised before a law "effectively ended" this policy, the Washington Post reports. Before 1956, the military guaranteed that all enlistees who served for at least 20 years would receive free health care for life. But that year, Congress enacted a law that provided free health care for military retirees only on a "space available" basis. The Post reports that this change did not affect most retirees until the mid-1990s, when the closing of military hospitals and a 1995 decision to allow retirees younger than 65 into a military managed care program left less space in the military's free health care system for veterans over 65, subsequently forcing them into Medicare. In the lawsuit, two retired Air Force lieutenant colonels sought compensation for Medicare premiums they said they were "forced to pay after being denied free health care at military installations." The three-judge Appeals Court panel agreed unanimously, writing, "The terms of the contract were set when the retirees entered the service and fulfilled their obligation. The government cannot unilaterally amend the contract terms now."
Buoyed by this decision, the officers' lawyer, retired Air Force Col. George "Bud" Day, has asked the court to extend its ruling to the "entire class of retirees" who joined the military before 1956 and served at least 20 years. According to Day, each retiree in this class could receive up to $10,000 if the decision is upheld. The Retired Officers Association estimates that more than one million such retirees and their family members are still living; an extension of the ruling could cost the federal government billions of dollars. While the Justice Department said it has not decided whether to appeal, a lawyer "familiar with the case" said that an appeal is "certain" and that the case "may still face an uphill battle," as last year a different three-judge panel on the same court ruled against retirees in a similar case, and the Supreme Court chose not to hear their appeal (Walsh, Washington Post, 2/19).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.