Guard group puts the pressure on Congress

One of the largest organizations representing National Guard members is stepping up its lobbying efforts, putting pressure on the House and Senate to pass legislation expanding healthcare coverage for reserve-component troops.

In an April 26 legislative alert, the National Guard Association of the United States (NGAUS) urged its 45,000 members to support legislation introduced earlier this year in both chambers that extends the military’s Tricare coverage to all members of the National Guard and Reserve, regardless of activation status.

Unlike active-duty soldiers, the reserve-component troops still would have to pay a premium — 28 percent of the monthly fees. But supporters of increased Tricare coverage view the legislation as a giant step forward in a long debate with the Pentagon over National Guard and Reserve benefit programs.
The grassroots lobbying push comes just weeks before the House and Senate Armed Services committees begin to mark up the 2006 defense authorization bill. Last year, congressional authorizers mandated a smaller expansion of Tricare eligibility for the Guard and Reserve, considered by many military organizations to be a first step toward complete coverage.

“As the markup gets closer, we’d like to try to get our members very engaged on this issue. They have been very engaged, but even more so,” said Michele Trafficante, who works in legislative affairs at NGAUS. “Hopefully we can put some pressure on members as they do their markups.”

NGAUS is joined in its efforts by a coalition of military organizations, including the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States (EANGUS), which placed a similar alert on its website several weeks ago.

“We are just trying to keep up the same pace we had last year,” said Erin Harting, EANGUS deputy director of legislative affairs.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), chairman of the Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) introduced the Senate version of the legislation in February. Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa) sponsored an identical bill in the House.

Officials at several military organizations said the Senate Armed Services Committee is likely their best chance at finding a champion for expanded Tricare coverage in this year’s authorization bill. Support in the House Armed Services Committee has been more lukewarm, with no major advocate stepping up. Latham is not a member of the committee.

“Maybe there are some on the House Armed Services Committee who believe we will be coming home from Iraq soon so we do not want to do a program based on what is going on now that will not go on in the future,” said Sydney Hickey, who sits on the board of directors for the National Military Family Association. “I think that scenario is a little rosy.”

With the Defense Department leaning more and more heavily on these so-called weekend warriors, military organizations have been pressing Congress and the administration to give these troops many of the same benefits as their active-duty counterparts. Continuous Tricare eligibility ranks high among these organizations’ top goals and is considered a key recruiting and retention tool for the reserve component, which has lagged behind its recruitment goals in recent months.

In March, the Pentagon announced that it would expand Tricare coverage to the 400,000-plus guardsmen and reservists who have been called up for at least 90 days since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — the move mandated in last year’s authorization bill. Each 90-day stretch of active duty buys these troops and their families one year of Tricare coverage at a price roughly equivalent to what federal civilians pay for their healthcare plans.

Until now, Tricare was available onto to guardsmen and reservists immediately before, during and after their mobilization.

“We’re confident we will have a program that our reserve-component members will find attractive, that will serve the needs of the department and the individuals and help the nation,” Charles Abell, deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, told reporters at the Pentagon on March 24.

The Pentagon’s move is seen as a first step, but military organizations have criticized several provisions of the department’s new policy. For one, the coverage maxes out at eight years and is only available to troops who have been mobilized and continue to stay in the drilling reserve. It also does not apply to reservists called up for homeland security missions, such as guarding bridges or airports.

“We were happy there was something in last year’s bill, [but it] didn’t address all the issues we’re looking at,” Trafficante said.