Health reform protects military benefits

By Tom Philpott: Military Update

Republican lawmakers raised the specter of military families and survivors of veterans seeing health care costs rise as a result of the national health reform law that President Obama signed March 23.

But the threat was never more than a notion and it is fading away. That’s the consensus among most military associations and veterans groups, as reinforced by statements from the secretaries of defense and veterans affairs, the White House and chairmen of key congressional committees.

White House officials were angered, and some veterans groups perplexed, by press releases issued last Sunday from Republicans on the House armed services and veterans’ affairs committees, and by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, hours before the House voted to approve the landmark Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.

The VFW said “the president and the Democratic leadership are betraying veterans” by not adopting a Republican amendment that explicitly would list TRICARE and VA survivor health benefits as meeting the health reform bill’s minimum essential coverage standard.

Without that status, argued ranking committee Republicans Howard “Buck” McKeon (Calif.) on armed services and Steve Buyer (Ind.) on veterans’ affairs, these beneficiaries and even some veterans’ children with Spina Bifida could be forced to pay a penalty or buy extra health insurance.

The chances of that occurring were between nil and infinitesimal, according to Democrats. They saw the Republican rhetoric as a last attempt to derail the health reform bill by angering veterans enough that they would persuade wavering Democrats to vote no.

To calm any such fears, the chairmen of five House committees, including Veterans Affairs Chair Bob Filner (D-Calif.) and Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) issued a joint letter reaffirming that the health reform legislation, as written, would protect those receiving care using TRICARE or the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In addition, a day before the critical vote, the House unanimously passed a bill from Skelton that would amend the tax code so that all TRICARE plans, and even health plans for Defense non-appropriated fund employees, met the health reform bill’s minimum essential coverage.

Vietnam Veterans of America praised the House for swift passage of Skelton’s bill and criticized politicians who would play on veterans’ fears.

In the Senate, James Webb (D-Va.) has introduced a bill identical to Skelton’s. Buyer said that Senate bill, before passage, should be amended to close the gaps that he found for veterans’ families.

VA committee chairman Filner countered that Buyer has relied on a “false interpretation” of health reform legislation and “somehow the VFW bought into it.” His committee, Filner said, watched progress on health reform carefully and was in constant contact with veterans’ groups.

“We knew from the beginning to make sure we watched everything so no benefits are touched or affected,” he said.

It is true, Filner conceded, that the Senate health reform legislation as enacted does list only some military and veterans programs as specifically meeting the new law’s minimum essential coverage standards.

“But we think the intent is clear in other parts” of the new law that no veterans’ and military health programs are to be changed. He said lawyers at VA and the White House had confirmed this view.