Three weeks before the Tricare Reserve Select program begins, a key senator predicts Congress this year will embrace his plan to offer even better health care benefits to drilling Reserve and National Guard members.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., new chairman of the Senate Armed Services’ Personnel subcommittee, described as “excellent” the prospect of opening Tricare Standard, the military’s traditional fee-for-service health insurance, to any drilling reservist and family, and with none of the onerous strings attached as occurs under Tricare Reserve Select.

“I have 70 senators behind me,” Graham said April 5, moments after chairing his first personnel subcommittee hearing.

At the hearing, Dr. David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, testified with the service personnel chiefs on recent recruiting and retention problems. Chu said the troubles are only “of the moment” and will be relieved by adding recruiters, raising bonuses and talking up the value of military service with parents, teachers, coaches — “influencers” who have been advising youths not to join the military.

Chu suggested that a better Tricare plan for reservists is unneeded.

Graham disagreed, arguing that reserve recruiting and retention shortfalls in the Army and Marine Corps are here to stay unless military family support structures are strengthened.

“No amount of [bonus] money is going to be able to fix this problem in isolation,” said Graham after the hearing. “This is a chronic problem because you now are having people … on their third, fourth trip to Iraq. The weak link in the chain is the family support piece.”

Tricare Reserve Select (TRS) enrollments will begin April 26. TRS was a late-hour compromise between Graham’s plan to open all of Tricare to drilling reservists who lack health insurance, and the Defense Department’s opposition to any health benefit for drilling reservists.

The result, TRS, is a benefit both complex and restrictive. Only Reserve and National Guard members deactivated from post-9/11 deployments are eligible. They must have served at least 90 continuous days of active service. For every 90 days activated, they are eligible for a year of TRS, a scaled-down version of Tricare Standard.

Enrollees must sign a binding agreement to remain in drill status, susceptible to mobilization, for the duration of TRS coverage. They will pay monthly premiums of $75 for member-only TRS or $233 for family coverage. They also will pay Tricare Standard usual fees, co-payments and deductibles. If a reservist stops the TRS premiums, coverage would end but the extended service obligation would stand.

Given operational demands on Guard and Reserve forces in the terrorism war, Graham said TRS isn’t enough. In February, he introduced S337, a bill to offer Tricare Standard benefits to all drilling reservists and their families. It would be the same Standard option available to active duty families, meaning no monthly premiums or extended service commitment as under TRS. The bill has 12 co-sponsors but Graham said he expects at least 70 senators to back the plan when he offers it as a floor amendment to the 2006 defense authorization bill later this year.

A second part of S337 would lower the age-60 start of reserve retired pay for members who serve longer than 20 years. Graham failed to tout that portion of the bill during the hearing. But Steve Strobridge, co-chairman of The Military Coalition, a consortium of service associations, encouraged the subcommittee to support both of these initiatives, and more.

Lowering reserve retirement is appropriate, Strobridge said, given the new likelihood reservists will be asked to deploy at least once every six years, impacting their civilian retirement benefits, 401(k) contributions and more.

Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, introduced in the House a companion bill, HR558 to Graham’s. It has 58 co-sponsors. But Graham noted that more than 300 House members in the last Congress approved a motion to instruct House conferees, working on a final 2005 defense bill, to agree to the Senate’s reserve health care plan before the TRS compromise. That leaves Graham confident that the House again will support expanded health care for drilling reservists.

The projected cost of the health portion of Graham’s bill is $3.8 billion over five years, half last year’s estimate. Graham trimmed costs, he said, by limiting reserve health benefits to Tricare Standard, excluding Tricare Prime, the managed care program. He also dropped a provision that the government cover the cost of premiums of reservists who elect to keep their private health insurance during periods of mobilization.

Graham said the cost is modest given that 20 percent of recalled reservists today can’t be mobilized because of health problems. Chu said the figure is down to 3 percent.

Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, urged Chu and the personnel chiefs to support a bill Nelson has co-sponsored S487 to provide up to 21 days paid leave to any servicemember who is primary caregiver to a newly-adopted child.

Chu said members already receive 30 days’ leave a year. Given the pace of current operations, he added, a greater problem for servicemembers is bumping up against a 60-day limit on accrued leave and losing the excess.

But Nelson, who adopted a child, said the idea of S487 is to give adoptive parents in the military extra time, comparable to maternity leave for new mothers, to bond with their children.

Three of four personnel chiefs found merit in Nelson’s bill.

To comment, write Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA 20120-1111, e-mail or visit

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