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Do veterans have a right to free health care for life?

Time and time again, Stars and Stripes hears from readers who say they were promised free medical care for life when they joined the military. The topic usually comes up when there is talk of raising Tricare fees for military retirees.

"I do mind paying more than $460.00 per year," one reader commented on such a story in January. "I was promised FREE medical and DENTAL for me and my family, for life. So to me any increase is a continuation of the break of a promise that was already broken."

Clearly, these folks feel betrayed, so The Rumor Doctor set out to see if there is any truth to this belief that troops and veterans are entitled to free health care for life.

"The short answer is no," said Peter Graves, a spokesman for the assistant defense secretary for health affairs. "Health care benefits for military members, retirees, and their families are, and have always been, as provided by law, and the law has never promised free health care for life."

The law provides free medical care for servicemembers on active duty and their families, Graves said in an email.

Congressional Research Service, which provides analysis for Congress, issued a 2003 report that found veterans were not entitled to free medical care for life, even though they may have been promised exactly that by their recruiters.

Since 1956, veterans and their families can be treated at military medical facilities "subject to the availability of space and facilities and the capabilities of the medical and dental staff," the report found.

"They have no right to military health care and the military services have total discretion in when and under what circumstances retirees and their dependents will get care in military treatment facilities," the report said.

Several veterans have taken their claims to court, alleging that recruiters promised them free medical care, but one court ruled that such promises did not constitute a contract, the report said.

Moreover, since recruiters do not have the authority to make such promises, there is no way to enforce them, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled in 2002. The Supreme Court later refused to hear the case, ending the matter.

"The courts, and other analysts, have noted that allowing these claims to create such an obligation would thwart the Constitutional role of Congress (i.e., prevent the Congress from determining the compensation and benefits of the armed forces) and create a situation wherein military personnel/retirees (and potentially al other federal employees) could create or expand their own benefits with popular myth or rumor and without review," the CRS report found.

THE RUMOR DOCTOR'S DIAGNOSIS: The rumor of free medical care for life is false, even though some veterans were promised it by recruiters, who were in no position to make such a promise. As the CRS report makes clear, "Unauthorized promises based on mistakes, fraud, etc. do not constitute a contractual obligation on the part of the government/taxpayer."

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