ARLINGTON, Va. — The overwhelming senatorial support for a bill to extend military health care benefits to activated Guard and Reserve members and their families just might be what is needed to get the White House to do an about face, two senators said.

“This train has left the station, and in some ways, I think they’d have no choice but to hop on board,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said of the administration’s leadership.

Extending the health coverage to Guard and Reserve units has been a contentious topic, and one that in the past, has not been supported by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld or the White House.

In April, the Pentagon tweaked its system so that, when mobilized for more than 30 days, National Guard and Reserve forces and their families are eligible for coverage under Tricare, the military’s health insurance.

The benefits extend for 90 days after the unit’s demobilization, and extend up to 120 days for those with more than six years of service.

“As a result of the actions of the Congress and the Department of Defense over the last two years, we have ensured that activated reservists and their family members receive the same excellent medical benefits that are available to fulltime servicemembers and their families,” William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, said in a written response to Stars and Stripes query on the issue.

“Tricare program enhancements now offer continuity of care for Reserve Component family members and waive cost shares since they may have already paid a deductible under their private insurance. I recently directed a one-year extension of this important program enhancement. For these reasons, the Department does not believe it appropriate to extend additional Tricare benefits to service members not in an active duty status.”

The changes also were designed to improve access to health care for families of deployed Reserve and Guard personnel, provide continuity of care with existing providers, reduce out-of-pocket expenses, and improve satisfaction within the Military Health Services System, he said.

The current law also requires employers to continue carrying employees’ health insurance — whether for individuals or families — for 30 days activation, said Army Lt. Col. Michael Lovitt, a spokesman for the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, a liaison office for reservists and their civilian employers.

Some companies offer extended health benefits, “in an effort to go above and beyond the law and share the sacrifices,” Lovitt said, but such largess is optional, not required.

The Senate measure would be tacked on to the $87 billion supplemental request from the Pentagon and White House for continuing operations and the rebuilding of Iraq and Afghanistan. The measure to extend the coverage will cost an estimated $400 million a year, said Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

If signed into law, the bill would provide Tricare coverage to any Guardsman or reservist and their families who don’t have health insurance in the private sector — and that would be offered to them whether activated or not. The bill also would allow those members who already have insurance in the private sector to have the government pay insurance premiums while that member is on an activated status, Daschle said.

“It passed with unanimous consent on the Senate floor,” Daschle said. “We’re hopeful the president will see fit to support it and join us. … The importance we placed on this bipartisan effort needs to be emphasized over and over again. We’re asking a lot of our [Guard and Reserve] troops, who in many cases, suffer great economic hardship” to serve their nation when activated.

“This is the work of senior Republicans and senior Democrats. My guess is that the administration will reverse itself and be supportive,” said Leahy, co-chairman of the Senate National Guard Caucus.

At the height of mobilizations following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, about 25 percent of the nation’s Guard and Reserve forces were activated. Today, that number is about 166,000 of the 1.22 million-man force, or nearly 14 percent.

About 40 percent of that activated force are junior enlisted troops, many of whom don’t have or can’t afford health insurance on their own, said Mike Cline, executive director of Enlisted Association National Guard of the United States.

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