NPR logo Playing Politics with Military Health Insurance

Playing Politics with Military Health Insurance

Some members of Congress are crying foul over last-minute maneuvers that wiped out an improvement in health benefits for National Guard and reservist troops now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The improvement had been part of the latest defense authorization bill, a $440-billion package for fiscal 2006 now working its way through Congress. It would have allowed members of the Guard and the reserves to buy into Tricare, the military's managed care health insurance, on a permanent basis. Right now, they can only buy in for periods of active duty and for three additional months of transition back to civilian life.

Extending permanent access to Tricare was the brainchild of Gene Taylor, a Mississippi Democrat and a 15-year veteran of the Armed Services Committee. Taylor argued that with the Guard and reserves providing 40 percent of the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, those service members deserved equal access to the military health care system.

Backed by seven Republican members of the committee, Taylor got the benefit added in committee despite the objection of the panel's chairman, Republican Duncan Hunter of California. But by the time the bill actually reached the House floor for final approval, the provision had been removed. An effort to restore it on the floor was blocked by the House Rules Committee.

Taylor had argued in committee that the Guard members and reservists really need the permanent access because fewer come to active duty from jobs that provide health insurance (and fewer find jobs with insurance when they muster out). Taylor said about 20 percent of these service members had no health insurance at all when they were not on active duty. And he noted that about the same percentage of Guard and reserve members could not be deployed immediately when called because of health problems.

Taylor's amendment won endorsement from several military groups, including the National Guard Association, the Military Officers Association of America and the Fleet Reserve Association. These groups said they hoped the added benefit would help recruit and retain volunteers for the Guard and reserves at a time when deployments are long and retention rates low.

With this organizational support and bipartisan backing, Taylor was able to win a showdown with Hunter when the committee marked up the bill. The vote was 32 to 30. But Hunter was not done. In preparing the bill for approval by the House Rules Committee, which governs how each bill will be debated on the floor, Hunter simply removed Taylor's insurance provision. As justification, he cited its cost. Each committee must operate under certain spending constraints assigned by the whole House. Hunter argued that Taylor's provision put the whole $440-billion package over the limit — which would make it subject to a challenge on the House floor.

This angered Taylor and his bipartisan group of supporters. The House Rules Committee, an arm of the Republican leadership, could easily waive any challenges to his provision, Taylor said, if it cared to. In fact, according to Taylor's staff, Rules had already waived potential challenges for 21 of the 38 bills considered by the House so far this year.

Armed with these facts, on the eve of the floor debate on the defense authorization bill, Taylor went to the Rules Committee. He asked that he be allowed to bring up his measure again as a floor amendment to the bill, giving it one last shot before the whole House. But Rules said no. Then it added insult to injury, waiving all potential challenges to the defense authorization bill. Under that blanket waiver, Taylor's provision would have been fine, had it been allowed to remain in the bill to that point.

So as it was applied, the budget restraint was less a fiscal tool than a political one. House leaders are often happy to waive such rules when it comes to their own preferred spending, or deficit-deepening tax cuts. But when rank-and-file lawmakers join together to support spending priorities outside the Republican leadership's plans, budgetary restraints make convenient grounds on which to deny them.

The next day, the news coverage of the bill focused on women's assignments in combat zones. Attention was paid to the hundreds of millions of dollars for bolstered "force protection," including more armor for Humvees, new night-vision goggles and jammers that frustrate electronic triggers on roadside bombs. Stories also noted that service members were getting a 3.1 percent pay raise, and a permanent increase (from about $12,000 to $100,000) in the federal death gratuity for service personnel killed in action.

There was little room to note the absence of Taylor's health care provision for the Guard and reserves.

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