Wes Hickman (202-224-5972) or Kevin Bishop (864-250-1417)
-- U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) today said the final FY 2005 Defense Appropriations bill contains as much as $683 million for the Department of Defense to launch a new program giving National Guard members, reservists, and their families access to affordable health care coverage until 2005.
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."
Meanwhile, several recent reports have raised concerns about the declining number of reservists.
On Tuesday, USA Today 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.” On Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times said, “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.” On Thursday, 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.”
The General Accounting 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.
“I will continue working with my colleagues to fully authorize and fund this important program so it’s there for our Guardsmen and Reservists each and every year they serve our country," said Graham. "Guardsmen and Reservists are citizen-soldiers. 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.