WASHINGTON — Extending federal health care to all drilling reservists would be so expensive that it could take guns out of troops’ hands, a former Defense Department financial expert said Wednesday.

But reservist lobbying groups, which have been pushing for the coverage, called the comments scare tactics that miss the importance of the health care expansion.

“People who know the budget process know that’s simply not true,” said Steve Strobridge, director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America. “The department can ask for a supplemental whenever they want, if that really was the case. We’re talking about a drop in the bucket here.”

At issue is a provision in the next year’s defense authorization bill, currently under consideration in the Senate.

In the spring, members of the House Armed Services Committee approved an amendment providing access to Tricare to all reserve and guard troops preparing for active duty, but chairman Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., struck the proposal before it reached a vote before the full House, citing excessive costs.

On Wednesday, during a hearing before the committee, former Defense Department comptroller Dov Zakheim said paying for the health care expansion — estimated at about $3.8 billion over the next five years — would “eat into the acquisition budget … we’re taking weapons out of everybody’s hands.”

His comments were well-received by several members of the committee, who said they were concerned with a Senate plan to include a similar amendment in its debate on the authorization bill.

Currently, only reservists and guardsmen who have been on active duty for at least a month are eligible for the federal health care, and they can keep the coverage for a number of months after they return home.

Zakheim said the existing Tricare system is already a major headache for the department’s finances, as health care costs have skyrocketed over the last decade.

“I’m not saying it’s not a great program, but we have to get it under control,” he said. “This is a lot of money.”

But Louis Leto, spokesman for the Reserve Officers Association, said military officials can’t afford to drop the proposal.

“You’re not going to have the soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines to serve in the first place if we don’t address their health care needs,” he said. “We see this as a recruiting and retention issue.”

Strobridge said providing health care for reservists when they begin training, and not making their families wait weeks before receiving the coverage, is especially important in light of the burden the troops have taken in operations overseas.

“These troops are bearing the greatest sacrifice of anyone in the country,” he said. “But even though we’re relying so heavily on them, we’re not going to spend another penny on them?”

The Senate is expected to pass the defense authorization bill by Oct. 1, the start of fiscal 2006. The bill will then head to conference committee to resolve differences.

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