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Wednesday, January 28

Senators want Guard, Reserves to get full health benefits

By Raju Chebium | GNS

With National Guard and reserve troops being deployed more than ever before, four senators renewed their effort Wednesday to give them the same health coverage as full-time soldiers.

A total of 194,000 Guard members and reservists are serving in postwar Iraq alone, making up about 40 percent of the U.S. military presence in that Arab nation. Yet, they aren't eligible for the military's Tricare program unless they are called to active duty. And their families often lose employer-sponsored coverage during these lengthy deployments.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and three Democrats - Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, and Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana - proposed legislation to offer Tricare to all Guard and reserve troops permanently. It is similar to a proposal they pushed last year.

Guard and reserve troops would have to pay premiums, unlike full-time soldiers.

``Patriotism among the Guard and the reserves is at an all-time high. The stress is at an all-time high,'' said Graham, a former Air National Guard member who now serves in the Air Force Reserves. ``This proposal is not only affordable, we can't afford not to do it.''

Last year, Congress extended Tricare coverage to unemployed Guard and reserve troops and those ineligible for employer coverage. They also can sign up when they receive their orders, not just when they begin their assignments. They also can stay on Tricare for six months after finishing their tours of duty.

``We owe it to them to do what we can to support them ... when they are there and after they come back,'' Daschle said. He noted that Tricare coverage for the Guard member and reservist and his or her family would cost about $4 a day.

Graham said a number of senators have expressed support for the bill. Eighty-five senators voted for proposals Congress enacted last year that stopped far short of full coverage.

The precise cost wasn't available. When introducing a similar bill last year, Graham estimated that it would set taxpayers back $3 billion a year.

Daschle stressed that the cost of implementing the new bill would be below 1 percent of the military's annual budget. That translates to about $4 a week for members and their families, he said.

President Bush plans to seek $400 billion for the Defense Department for next year. The administration has opposed the measure, citing costs. The Defense Department said it hasn't analyzed the new bill yet and is working to expand health care coverage for Guard and reserve troops, as Congress ordered last year.

Two thousand members of the Guard and reserves in South Dakota have been mobilized so far, Daschle said. Eight hundred troops are being trained to serve in Iraq. Another contingent will soon head to Kosovo.

``Each of these men and women go proudly. But they go with extraordinary personal sacrifice not only to themselves but to their families,'' Daschle said.

Leahy stressed that the support for the proposal crosses party lines.

``This is not Republican or Democratic. It is not conservative or liberal. It's good, clean, strong American legislation,'' said Leahy, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. ``This is not a partisan issue. This is an issue of justice.''

Landrieu said the Guard and reserve troops play increasingly critical roles in U.S. operations overseas.

From 1953 to 1989 about 200,000 Guard troops and reservists were activated three times. Since the end of the Cold War, when the United States became more involved in multinational military and peacekeeping missions, 365,000 part-time troops have been activated six times.

``They now comprise almost half of our fighting force. So to shortchange half of our fighting force ... shortchanges the security of our country,'' she said. ``This is a modest step. This is an important step.''

The bill would also:

- Help Guard and reserve members who elect to keep their private health coverage pay their premiums.

- Allow reservists to collect retirement benefits at age 53 instead of 60.

Guard and reserve representatives said the legislation would help recruit new members and give troops the incentive to stay on past the minimum six-year commitment.


On the Web:

- http://thomas.loc.gov, to search for details on the bill - The National Guard and Reserve Readiness and Retention Act - when it becomes available.