Health reform won’t affect TRICARE

By Tom Philpott: CNJ columnist

The national health reform bill, passed by the House in October, and the Senate version, to be debated early this month, 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 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.

“Every day 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 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.