WASHINGTON — National Guard and Reserve forces called up for more than 30 days are now eligible for the Pentagon’s Tricare Prime premium health insurance program, a top personnel official announced Tuesday.

David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, told the Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on personnel that the Bush administration has decided to open up Tricare to short-term activations, “effective immediately.”

William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, appeared with Chu and called the policy “a very important change.”

“There was a 180-day hurdle that people had to get over until now, so they could only utilize the standard benefit,” which has much higher co-pays and fewer benefits, Winkenwerder said.

Thomas Hall, assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, said that Pentagon officials have extended a Tricare “demonstration project” that was implemented for the National Guard and reserves after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks “to the current mobilization” for Iraq.

That project waives Tricare Standard’s $300 family deductible and increases payments to providers to 115 percent of normal. The project also gives demobilized reservists at least 60 days of health care coverage, with as much as 120 days’ coverage provided for some long-deployed reservists.

Reserve issues — from the special needs of reserve families, to the loss of salary when some reservists are activated — were a major topic of discussion during the hearing.

Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, expressed concern that some reservists lose money when they give up their civilian jobs for military duties.

But Hall said that a new study by his office showed that 66 percent of reservists either stay at their current income level or increase their income when they are activated.

Chu, meanwhile, said that reservists need to look at their “income and benefits … over the course of a 20-year career,” including Tricare for Life and commissary rights after retirement.

“It’s the lifetime pay that counts,” Chu said.

Also on Chu’s agenda was the Bush administration’s proposed National Security Personnel System, which he said will give the Pentagon more flexible ways to deal with its 700,000-strong civilian work force.

Chu complained that it takes an average of three months to hire a new civilian employee.

“That is inadequate,” Chu said. “We need greater hiring flexibility, including the ability to hire on the spot.”

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