MILITARY HEALTH: Veterans Push for Increased Benefits
With almost every national veterans group prepared to lobby Congress in the upcoming months, "there is little doubt that Congress will take some action this year to beef up health care benefits for those who retired after a full 20-year career in the military," the Washington Post reports. At least six bills calling for expansion of health care benefits for military retirees are up for consideration. The bill with the highest price tag, which is supported by Rep. Ronnie Shows (D-Miss.) and Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), would permit Medicare-eligible service beneficiaries to remain in Tricare for life or enroll in the Federal Employee Health Benefit Program. On the low end is a bipartisan Senate proposal backed by Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) and Armed Services Committee Chair John Warner (R-Va.) that would extend existing demonstration programs that have experimented with offering specific Tricare benefits to military retirees over age 65. The Senate plan also would expand the national mail-order pharmacy program to all Medicare-eligible uniformed services beneficiaries.
Defense Secretary William Cohen has promised to work something out with Congress, saying expanded benefits are a "moral obligation," but indicated concern that "it's going to be very expensive." House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Lott have warned veterans to "scale back their expectations." Hastert said, "We increased military health benefits significantly last year, and there's some room to increase it this year. ... But there's a competition in a lot of quarters on health care." Veterans, however, argue that providing more benefits "is a matter of principle, not money." Although Congress has never made guaranteed benefits a matter of law, in 1956 it granted military retirees access to military health facilities only when space and personnel were available. Previously, retirees and their families received military medical care on the same basis as active-duty personnel and their dependents, but base closings since 1988 have closed or scaled back more than 100 military hospitals and clinics. Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Nelson, president of the Retired Officers Association, said, "We have stories of people decorated for gallantry who have difficulty getting, or cannot get, the health care they were promised for years and now need desperately" (Suro/Pianin, 3/26).