While much of the nation is talking about health care as Capitol Hill engages in a showdown on the Affordable Care Act, severely injured veterans have been struggling with an issue that has forced thousands to overpay for their health care for years.
Fourteen years ago, I vowed to protect and defend this nation against all enemies, and it was one of the most defining moments of my life. From a young age, I had always known that I wanted to serve my country, and it was truly an honor to have that opportunity after my college career in 2003.
After completing armor officer basic and airborne schools, I was assigned to 1st Battalion, 13th Armor Regiment. Shortly thereafter in 2005, I was deployed to Taji, Iraq. Early one morning, my vehicle struck an improvised explosive device, which severed my right arm above the elbow and my left leg above the knee.
Due to my injuries, I was evacuated to the old Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where I remained in a coma for two weeks before slowly beginning what would be a long recovery process – one that continues to this day.
Coming to terms with the reality that my dream of serving a life-long career in the U.S. Army was over was difficult. At the age of 26, I was medically retired from the Army. Not only would I have to find my way to a new normal, I would have to realign my dreams to my new reality.
My injuries prevented me from being able to work for a period of time. Because I had received Social Security Disability for more than 24 months, I was notified that I had become eligible for Medicare. At that point, I lost the choice to remain on TRICARE benefits I had earned as a military retiree.
Most military retirees pay premiums as low as $283 per year for traditional TRICARE health insurance plans. This is the healthcare they’ve earned through their service. I had to pay five times as much for my health plan, and I’m not alone. There are thousands of retirees – who have sustained serious injuries – who have lost access to TRICARE and are required to go onto Medicare.
Fortunately, in my recovery, I was able to start another career. However, confusing laws surrounding Medicare eligibility kept me from being able to access the more reasonably priced TRICARE plan for eight and a half years – even though I stopped receiving Social Security Disability, wasn’t using Medicare, and had returned to work.
A bill was recently introduced to address this unintended consequence of the Medicare policy. The HEARTS Act will make a real difference for those – like me – who have been able to return to work. This is a good first step, and I respect and commend Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) for opening this dialogue.
But there is a broader issue here. Most of my brothers and sisters who fall into this category will never be able to go back to work. They will continue to live on a fixed income, requiring significant support, while paying these higher premiums despite having earned TRICARE through their service. The federal government has placed an unfair burden on these men and women, forcing them to navigate an overly bureaucratic process while having to pay the most for health insurance.
Severely wounded military retirees should not be forced to pay Medicare premiums if we prefer to stay on traditional TRICARE plans. Conversely, those who prefer the care they receive through Medicare should have the option to stay on that plan. We deserve the ability to choose which plan works best for our families and our pathways to recovery.
I strongly urge Congress to support a measure that addresses the broader problem of providing a choice in healthcare to all severely wounded retirees – especially for my brothers and sisters who, due to their injuries, will never be able to work.
As the hyper-partisan debate on the Affordable Care Act reaches fever pitch, let’s not lose sight of a common-sense solution to help all severely wounded veterans choose the best healthcare plan for them and their families.
Ryan Kules is a retired U.S. Army captain who now serves as a combat stress recovery director at Wounded Warrior Project.
The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.