Military beneficiaries, vets shielded from health reform
By Tom Philpott
The national health reform bill passed by the House last month and the Senate version to be debated in early December pose no threat to current health care benefits provided to military families, retirees or veterans, say advocates for these beneficiaries as well as congressional committee staffs.
The House-passed Affordable Health Care for America Act (HR 3962) states in Section 311 that “nothing” in the bill “shall be construed as affecting” authorities used by the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs to provide TRICARE programs or VA health care benefits.
The Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), the Fleet Reserve Association of America, the American Legion and other veterans’ service organizations have studied the legislative language of both bills. Their own reviews, and assurances they’ve received from relevant committees, give them confidence that the bills won’t impact benefits or fees charged by TRICARE or VA, nor will these beneficiaries be exposed to any new tax liabilities.
“We have not talked to anybody – Republican, Democrat, anyone in the [Obama] administration or serving in Congress -- who is trying to do anything to affect military people” as part of national health reform legislation, said Steve Strobridge, MOAA’s director of government relations. “They all are trying to hold military beneficiaries harmless.”
Steve Robertson, legislative director for the American Legion, said he has assurances from the armed services committees, veterans’ affairs committees and congressional leaders including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that health reform will not impact TRICARE programs or VA health care.
“My comfort level is pretty high,” Robertson said.
Confusing the issue for many beneficiaries has been an e-mail being passed among military retirees that warns falsely that the Congressional Budget Office has drafted legislation to attach new fees to TRICARE for Life, the prized insurance supplement relied on by Medicare-eligible retirees.
The e-mail is filled with misinformation. CBO has no authority to draft legislation. CBO did release a report last December presenting options for holding down federal health care costs; a few of those options would raise fees on military retirees and veterans. But neither the Obama administration nor any members of Congress have embraced any of these ideas.
“Everyday I get to answer e-mails from people who are still telling me that this ‘CBO legislation’ is moving through rapidly,” said Robertson.
Other military retirees and disabled veterans are worried by news reports that national health care reform will impose an excise tax on “Cadillac” health insurance programs. Will that include TRICARE or VA health care? It will not, say service groups and informed congressional staffs.
Strobridge noted that the Senate bill, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (HR 3590), doesn’t contain the same specific language of the House bill does to shield TRICARE programs and VA health benefits.
However, the Senate bill’s provision to allow an excise tax on “applicable employer-sponsored coverage” lists, among government plans, only the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan for possible inclusion. TRICARE and VA health care benefits are not named. Finance committee staffers have explained that this was intentional to shield these programs.
MOAA has urged senators to add three clarifying provisions to their bill. One would duplicate language of the House bill that nothing in the legislation alters health care program authorities for DoD and VA.
Other language is sought to explicitly exclude TRICARE, TRICARE for Life and VA health care programs from any health reform bill excise tax on certain employer-provided plans. Finally, MOAA wants language in the Senate bill calling for a study of national health reform’s impact on veterans to include a study of the impact on TRICARE and TRICARE for Life.
Military people who seek assurance that the Senate health reform bill won’t impact them negatively end up “looking for something that isn’t there,” Strobridge said. The Senate, like the House, should make it clear, he said.
“There are lots of people out there who would like to raise military fees” on health benefits, Strobridge said. “But they are not trying to do it in this legislation…As far as we can see, everybody in Congress is trying to bend over backwards to protect the military. And that’s true of both parties.”
The only real threat to military and veteran benefits posed by national health reform, he continued, is the likelihood that it will add to the annual federal budget deficit which was $1.4 trillion last year. That will increase political pressure, over time, to curb federal entitlements including military health care and retirement plans, said Strobridge. Pressure on defense budgets already is enormous.
“That’s why Defense leaders have been saying for years ‘I don’t what to pay this $10 billion for TRICARE for Life that we put in the defense bill every year.’ I want to shift more costs to the beneficiary.’ That is what the Bush administration said the last three years,” Strobridge said.
“We haven’t even started to talk about the effect of the baby boom generation on Medicare and Social Security” on future budgets, he added.
Given that pressure, MOAA has been pressing Congress to define in law that military members and retirees have earned through service certain unassailable rights to promised retirement and health care benefits.
“What we’re concerned about is that budget pressure will drive arbitrary decisions. That is what has hurt us in the past,” said Strobridge. Congress should take steps to spell out what military folks have earned.
“If you don’t have any rules to rely on,” he said, “when the budget tidal wave comes it will sweep you away.”