By Tom Philpott: PNT columnist
The House Armed Services Committee has voted 32-30 to open the new TRICARE Reserve Select (TRS) program to any drilling reservist or National Guard member willing to pay the premiums, now set at $75 a month for member-only coverage or $233 for family coverage.
An unprecedented fulltime health plan for reserve component members, if agreed to by the full House and later by the Senate, would cost $3.85 billion over five years. It would be paid with a portion of projected savings from the new round of base closings.
TRS, a scaled-down version of TRICARE Standard, the military’s traditional fee-for-service insurance plan, only accepted its first `select’ enrollees on April 26. As enacted last year, current TRS is open only to reservists who have been deactivated from post-9-11 deployments.
Reps. Gene Taylor, D-Miss, and Joe Wilson, R-S.C., primary sponsors of the amendment, persuaded a bipartisan group of colleagues to support opening TRS to any drilling reservist to recognize and reward the nation’s heavy reliance on reserve and Guard members in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In an interview after the late-evening vote on Wednesday, Taylor noted that reservists comprise 40 percent of ground forces in Iraq. Given their role fighting side-by-side with active-duty forces, they deserve at least some medical benefits they can count while in drill status. Taylor said he expects the Senate to agree to House committee plan if not improve upon it.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., chairman of the Senate subcommittee on military personnel, had promised an amendment to open TRICARE Standard to all drilling reservists, in effect offering TRS without the premiums. An aide to Graham said he now believes premiums are necessary to keep any expansion of reserve TRICARE affordable.
Republicans who defied committee leaders to vote for expanded TRS were Walter B. Jones (N.C.), John Hostettler (Ind.), Jo Ann Davis (Va.), Rob Simmons (Conn.), Joe Schwarz (Mich.), and Jeb Bradley (N.H.). Three Democrats voted against the amendment: Vic Snyder (Ark.), Jim Marshall (Ga.) and Jim Cooper (Tenn.).
Rick Larsen, D-Wash., originally voted against the amendment but changed his mind and cast the deciding “aye.’’
Taylor had argued that 18 percent of drilling reservists lack health insurance, which helps to explain why many were medically unfit when recalled for the war in Iraq.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., committee chairman, warned that many civilian employers of drilling reservists, on learning of an expanded reserve healthcare option, would tighten their own healthcare program for employees in drill status.
“We looked at this 30 ways to Sunday and didn’t see how we could keep people from gaming the system, and piling enormous costs onto the federal government,’’ Hunter warned.
Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., chairman of the military personnel subcommittee, agreed. If as many as 18 percent of drilling reservists have no health insurance, he said, 82 percent do. Their employers will be “very tempted to dump Guard and reserve health care costs onto TRICARE.’’ That kind of shift, he said, is under way with some state governments ordering state retirees to buy the Medicare pharmacy benefit when available in 2006.
Currently, TRS is only open to reserve component members who have returned after being mobilized under contingency orders of 30 days or longer and who served at least 90 days’ continuous active service. For every 90 days served, they are eligible for a year of TRS coverage.
WOMEN IN COMBAT— The same House committee, in marking up its version of the 2006 defense authorization bill, also agreed by voice vote to an amendment from McHugh that would set in law what now is only Army policy, barring women from combat or combat support units.
McHugh and Hunter noted that 60 women soldiers have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, evidence that the Army is not following the policy it adopted in 1994 to keep women out of dangerous combat-like assignments.
The current exposure of women to combat “deeply needs our attention and oversight,’’ Hunter said, brushing aside criticism that the committee will confuse and worry thousands of deployed female soldiers.
“It’s the Army that is confused,” Hunter said, recalling how it supplied three different estimates over 72 hours on the number of Army women in combat support roles in Iraq. On a party-line vote, the committee rejected an amendment from Snyder opposing any change in assignment law to allow time to study the impact on female careers.
Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: