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The Bush administration will ask Congress to provide lifetime Tricare coverage to any servicemember discharged as “unfit” due to service-related physical or mental health conditions, said Donna Shalala, co-chair of the President’s Commission on Care for America’s Returning Wounded Warriors.

The Tricare change will be one of the most expensive initiatives in a legislative package the White House will send to Congress by the end of September. The package is to implement key recommendations of the wounded warrior panel, also known as the Dole-Shalala Commission.

The Tricare proposal, if enacted into law, would open military health care to a wave of new beneficiaries, potentially as many as 9,000 to 10,000 newly disabled veterans each year plus families.

The Dole-Shalala commission report, released in July, said the Tricare change should apply only to servicemembers separated for combat-related disabilities. But White House officials, at the urging of Defense officials and service associations, have decided to ask Congress to extend lifetime Tricare coverage to all medically discharged veterans.

Shalala said the White House will propose that the Tricare expansion be applied retroactively to veterans medically separated since 2001. Shalala didn’t mention a specific retroactive date, but Congress two years ago made eligibility for traumatic injury insurance retroactive to Oct. 7, 2001, the day U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan and began the global war on terrorism.

Under current law, members are separated rather than retired if found unfit for duty because of conditions rated below 20 percent disabling. They receive a disability severance award rather than retired pay. Because they are not “retirees,” they and their families are ineligible for lifetime Tricare coverage. They can get VA health care, but family members cannot.

From 2000 to 2006, an average of 9,600 servicemembers a year were separated as medically unfit with disability ratings of 20 percent or less, according to statistics gathered by the Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission, which is due to release its report on Oct. 3. Nearly nine of 10 disabled soldiers were separated rather than retired. Sixty-four percent of sailors with disabilities, 73 percent of disabled airmen and 82 percent of disabled Marines also were released with ratings of 20 percent or less.

Shalala and her co-chairman, retired Sen. Robert Dole, said six of 34 “action steps” that their commission recommends requires legislation. They urged lawmakers to enact the White House initiatives this fall if possible.

In addition to expanding Tricare, they said, Congress should:

Authorize the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to provide lifetime treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder to any veteran deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan who seeks treatment.Strengthen support for military families caring for wounded warriors by making them eligible for Tricare-provided respite care and aid and attendant benefits.Amend the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) so that families of combat-injured servicemembers see unpaid leave protection extended from the current limit of 12 weeks to up to 6 months.n End the dual Department of Defense and VA disability systems, by giving DOD responsibility only for finding a member unfit for duty, Dole said. DOD should pay disabled members an immediate lifetime annuity based on rank and years of service. The revised VA disability pay system should include a monthly transition payment, perhaps equal to final military basic pay. That would be replaced after the veteran settles into civilian life with payment to replace reduced earnings tied to their level of disability and payable until age 65. Veterans also should get a lifetime quality-of-life payment to compensate for life effects of their disabilities.

The commission gave no amounts for these payments, leaving that for the Bush administration and Congress to decide.

Congress shouldn’t worry about the cost, Dole added.

“My view was if we spent billions and billons and billions of dollars on getting young men and women in harm’s way, we ought to spend what it takes to get them back to nearly a normal life as possible.”

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