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Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., chairman of the Senate armed services subcommittee on military personnel, says he will be “adamant” during negotiations with House conferees on a final defense authorization bill that it include his Senate-approved amendment to open a premium-based military health insurance plan to any drilling reservist or National Guard member.

“This is absolutely essential for me, as a senator, to see Guard [members] and reservists become eligible for military health care so we can take better care of their families and improve recruiting and readiness,” Graham said in an Aug. 9 phone interview.

Over the past two months, Graham said, reserve component casualties in Iraq have outnumbered active-duty losses, and operational demands on reserve forces “are going to grow, not lessen. We are a long way from being able to come home from Iraq. … It’s going to take years.”

To shore up recruiting and retention, Graham said, “We need new benefits for a new war.

“And one of the cornerstones of the Guard and Reserve package is allowing members and their families to access full-time military health care,” the senator added. “They are the only part-time federal employees not eligible for any form of government health care.”

Last month, the Senate agreed to Graham’s amendment to allow any drilling Reserve or Guard member to enroll in what now is called Tricare Reserve Select, a premium-based version of Tricare Standard. The House Armed Services Committee adopted a similar amendment, from Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., in May. But committee chairman Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., removed it before sending the bill to the House floor. Hunter said it violated House budget rules against raising entitlement spending without a matching offset.

Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., co-sponsored Graham’s amendment, and were joined by John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who also vowed to fight for it during a House-Senate conference committee to iron out differences in the bills.

House Republicans and the Bush administration oppose the change, citing the known costs and also the likelihood that civilian employers will take advantage of expanded Tricare to tighten their own health benefit offerings to employees who serve in reserve components.

Graham shrugs off the cost argument, suggesting Reserve and Guard recruiting and retention will collapse without an improved health care benefit. Also, he argued, because 20 percent of drilling reservists lack any health insurance, many report for duty medically unfit to deploy. That’s a cost burden that better health insurance will ease, Graham said.

Regarding recent reports from the Government Accountability Office and defense think-tanks that Congress is allowing spending on military compensation, particularly on deferred compensation, to soar, endangering other critical defense programs, Graham conceded that is a concern.

“Our health care costs in the out years become enormous and the Tricare benefit for retirees and others has been locked into place in a static form for years,” Graham said. “We need to look at a new model, starting with new [entrants], that will have more cost-sharing [by beneficiaries] so we don’t have to pick between armaments and benefits.”

But improving Guard and Reserve health benefits “is about recruiting and readiness and retention. It is not the problem.” He said half of the escalation in personnel costs is traced to retirement years. “So we are going to have to do two things: Provide the benefit package to keep recruiting and retention up in a very hostile wartime environment [and] look at long-term sustainability of benefits, particularly in retirement years.”

That look should be “prospective only,” he said. Future servicemembers should pay a greater share of medical costs and, in return, get better benefits. Establishing military medical savings accounts is one option, he said, “where the member can put some money into the system, the government will match it and they can keep what they don’t use. I want to be creative … But you have to vest the people who are already in the system and close to retirement.”

SBP-DIC offsetSen. Warner will urge colleagues in September to delay for at least a year a vote on an amendment from Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., to end mandatory reductions in the Survivor Benefit Plan, for surviving spouses who draw VA Dependency and Indemnity Compensation.

Before Congress went to summer recess, Warner introduced an amendment to Nelson’s. It would require that findings on SPB-DIC integration by the Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission be considered before Congress votes to change the law. The commission report is due in August 2006. Edith Smith, an advocate for military widows, called Warner’s amendment a surprise “blow” to a long-awaited vote on ending the offset.

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


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