Military groups call for better healthcare for Guard, Reserve

The Pentagon announced last week that it will expand healthcare coverage for National Guard and Reserve troops, but a coalition of military organizations argues that the move is just a first step and falls far short of its long-term goals.

With the military leaning more and more heavily on the reserve component, military organizations have been pressing Congress and the administration to give these troops many of the same benefits as their active-duty counterparts — including continuous coverage by the military’s Tricare healthcare program.

“We are telling folks that 18 to 24 months out of every six years — 25 percent of your working life — we’re going to ask them to devote to the military,” said Steve Strobridge, director of government relations at the Military Officers Association of America. “When you do that, you assume different obligations. It puts strains on employers, strains on their ability to build a civilian career.”

The Defense Department’s March 24 announcement makes Tricare available only 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. Each 90-day stretch of active-duty service buys these so-called weekend warriors and their families one year of Tricare coverage at a price roughly equivalent to what federal civilians pay for their healthcare plans. Active-duty soldiers — and reserve-component troops on active duty — do not pay a premium for their healthcare.

“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 March 24.

But the coverage maxes out at eight years and is only available to those who have been mobilized — two conditions military organizations have criticized.

The move, mandated in the 2005 defense authorization bill, is a major step in the right direction, say members of the Military Coalition, a group of 25 military, veterans and officer organizations that has long pushed for more comprehensive healthcare coverage for the country’s 1.8 million guardsmen and reservists.

The plan is to focus on Capitol Hill, where several key lawmakers already have advocated giving the military’s reserve component more permanent access to Tricare coverage. Until now, Tricare was available only to guardsmen and reservists immediately before, during and shortly after their mobilization.

So far, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), chairman of the Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) have emerged as two of the leading advocates on this issue. Bills to expand Tricare coverage were introduced last month in both chambers.

“It is difficult to change the administration’s mind sometimes,” said Erin Harting, deputy director of legislative affairs at the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States and the co-chairwoman of the Military Coalition’s Guard and Reserve Committee. “We need to garner more support in Congress for the full deal.”

Their concern, coalition members say, is providing continued, ongoing healthcare coverage in the same plan. That would allow family members to keep the same doctors for years, rather than changing providers when they switch from their military to civilian plans.

Meanwhile, 20 percent of reservists do not have civilian healthcare plans, posing potential medical readiness issues when these troops are activated, coalition members said.

“This is a first step in that direction, that is no question,” said Sydney Hickey, who sits on the board of directors for the National Military Family Association, another member of the Military Coalition. “But it is a reward for service in a combat zone, not the basic of what we’re talking about — continuity of care.”

Without a more permanent plan, many troops will be reluctant to sign their families up, said Strobridge, a former co-chairman of the coalition.

“If I’m deployed for a year, I get four years’ worth of coverage. Then what happens after that?” Strobridge asked. “Do I want to get my family into a temporary program?”

Coalition members also are concerned that the soldiers must decide before they come off active duty whether or not they want to continue their Tricare coverage when they return to their civilian lives. It allows for little consultation with family members and does not give soldiers time to evaluate their civilian healthcare options.

“If anybody has been to these demobilization sites, they are 200 people in a big gym and once you get all these [forms] checked off you can go home,” Hickey said. “A lot of thought may not be given to this.”