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ARLINGTON, Va. — A bi-partisan group of legislators unveiled a new bill Wednesday that would improve retirement and health-care benefits for members of the National Guard and Reserves.

Rep. Tom Latham from Iowa and Sen. Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, both Republicans, spearheaded the bill, called the Guard and Reserve Readiness and Retention Act of 2005.

The bill has two major components: a provision that would allow Guardsmen and reservists to buy coverage using Tricare, the military’s health-care system, whether or not they are mobilized; and a decrease in the military retirement age that is based on the number of years a reservist has served.

Right now, only mobilized reservists are allowed to sign up themselves and their families for Tricare, thanks to a provision passed by Congress last year.

Like many working Americans, reservists frequently cannot afford medical insurance, Latham said during a press conference announcing the bill Tuesday.

The senator cited a U.S. government study released in April 2003 that found that 20 percent of Army National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers are uninsured.

The uninsured rate is much higher in some parts of the country, according to the study, which was conducted by Congress’ watchdog arm, the General Accounting Office: As many as 40 percent of Guardsmen and reservists who live in the Midwest are uninsured.

Yet to be determined is the cost of monthly premiums to reservists who elect Tricare, said Mark Olanoff, executive director of the Retired Enlisted Association in Alexandria, Va., one of several reserve advocacy organizations supporting the bill.

The bill also proposes making retirement benefits available earlier, using a formula that would shave one year off the current 60-year retirement benchmark for every two years of service over 20 years.

Right now, reservists can’t start collecting retirement pay until they turn 60, regardless of how long they have served in the military.

But if the bill passes, a reservist with 20 years of service could draw retirement pay at age 60, while a reservist with 34 years of service could retire as early as age 53.

The longer and more frequent deployments that are resulting from the continuing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan mean that many reservists are contributing less money to their tax-deferred private retirement plans, Latham said. And at the same time they are accruing fewer eligible months or years to qualify for their civilian pension plans.

Lowering the retirement age, Latham said, would give highly experienced reservists an incentive to continue serving.

The bill’s provisions would cost taxpayers an estimated $7 billion over five years, Latham said.

The bill’s other co-sponsors include Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.; Mike DeWine, R-Ohio; George Allen, R-Va.; Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.; and Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C.


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