Wes Hickman (202-224-5972) or Kevin Bishop (864-250-1417)
-- U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham’s (R-South Carolina) drive to provide better health care benefits to members of the National Guard, Reserves, and their families has finally come to fruition – at least for a few months while Congress continues its work to make the benefit long-term.
Graham said the final Fiscal Year 2005 Defense Appropriations bill contains as much as $683 million for the Department of Defense to launch a new program giving reservists and their families access to affordable health care coverage. President Bush signed the bill into law today.
Appropriations Committee leaders told Graham and co-author Senator Tom Daschle (D-SD) they would provide the rest of the funding later, if the Graham-Daschle amendment is adopted during House-Senate conference committee negotiations on HR4200, the Defense Authorization Bill.
“For the first time, Congress will provide health care benefits to members of the National Guard and Reserves regardless of their activation status," said Graham, a member of the Armed Services Committee and a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserves. Graham is the only Senator to serve in a Guard or Reserve unit.
"This is a step forward and I’m appreciative of the work that went into making this happen. However, our fight for better health care for reservists is not finished," said Graham. "The program will be funded in full for at least four months while we continue to work for the necessary congressional authorization and further appropriations.”
Members of the guard and reserves will be eligible to enroll in TRICARE for a modest annual premium regardless of their deployment status. Premiums would be about $530/year for individual coverage and $1,860/year for families. When fully phased in the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates the provision would assist more than 300,000 reservists and their family members. CBO estimates the costs of the benefit at $5.4 billion over the next 5 years, about one-half of one percent of the entire Department of Defense budget.
The Government Accountability Office estimates that 40 percent of the National Guard's junior enlisted personnel and 20 percent of all reservists lack health care coverage. Last year, Graham successfully enacted a one-year program that provided access to TRICARE to members of the Guard and Reserve without employer-based health care.
Meanwhile, several recent reports have raised concerns about the declining number of reservists.
- USA Today has reported that the “Army National Guard is having increasing difficulty recruiting soldiers…. Experts say it’s easier for the active-duty Army to recruit because it offers more benefits.”
- The Los Angeles Times has written, “In the corridors of the Pentagon, a major concern is that the tempo of deployments since the Sept. 11 attacks will ultimately take its toll on retention and recruitment…. Thus far, the Army has been able to meet recruiting goals for the active force, but is falling short of its 2004 target numbers for the National Guard.”
- The Washington Post said the Army’s pool of “delayed entry” soldiers has shrunk to its lowest level in three years and quoted a Missouri Congressman who said retention in his state’s National Guard “is sliding downhill very, very fast.”
“We’re calling upon the Guard and Reserve at the same tempo level we did during World War II,” said Graham. “On a percentage basis, it’s even greater. So it’s past time to increase benefits for Guard and Reserve members.”
Graham said that in Iraq Guardsman and Reservists have rotated with the active-duty forces, increasing the reserve component share of the total U.S. forces to more than 40 percent. The reserves have also been charged with taking control of the entire peacekeeping mission in the Balkans.
But increasing health care benefits is not the only reform Graham wants to see enacted. He has sponsored additional legislation modernizing benefits for members of the National Guard and Reserves. Among the other items on his agenda:
- Adjusting the retirement structure of the Guard and Reserves to more accurately reflect the needs of the troops. For every two years a member serves after twenty years of honorable service, that individual’s eligible retirement age will be reduced by one year. Under current law, the retirement age is 60. Under this legislation, if an individual serves for 22 years, they are eligible for retirement at 59. An individual entering military service at 18 and serving for 36 years could retire at 52.
- Providing tax breaks for employers that make up the difference in civilian pay and reserve pay while members are on active duty. Employers can receive up $25,000 per qualified employee in tax breaks for relieving this disparity.
“Guardsmen and Reservists are citizen-soldiers,” said Graham. “Increasingly they are being called up to duty, taken away from their work and families, and being sent to far-away lands for long tours of duty. We need to ensure the benefits they are receiving are equal to the sacrifice they are making to protect our country and interests around the world.”