Health Care Reform Protects TRICARE

Legislation Allows Military Members to Keep Coverage

Ever since President Barack Obama signed into law the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or the new health care bill, members of the military and military retirees and their families have been concerned about how the bill will affect their benefits. And if they’ve been listening to statements from groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and some Republican congressmen, they would have good reason to be concerned.

VFW Commander Thomas Tradewell, for example, said that President Obama and congressional Democrats were “betraying America’s veterans” by pushing this health care legislation, charging that it “does not fully protect” TRICARE. Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-CA) raised the troubling charge that TRICARE’s administration will be moved out of the Department of Defense and into “the department that handles welfare.” Rep. John Carter (R-TX) even went so far as to label it a “sneak attack on our service members and their dependents’ healthcare.”

All of these concerns would indeed be troubling—if they were true. But they’re flat out wrong. Health care reform will not negatively affect TRICARE.

One of the Affordable Care Act’s centerpieces is the individual responsibility requirement, meaning that every person must have health coverage, receive an affordability waiver, or pay a fee. By bringing everyone—whether young or old, sick or well—into the health care system, there will be fewer uninsured Americans and lower costs for all. It’s important for active duty service members and retirees to know that their insurance through the TRICARE system meets this requirement, and they will not have to purchase extra coverage.

Confusion on this issue initially arose when people noticed that the health care legislation didn’t explicitlystate that TRICARE would meet the individual responsibility requirement. But five congressmen who chair relevant committees in the U.S. House of Representatives all stated that the legislation would not “undermine or change the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs operation of their health care programs or interfere with the care that our service members receive under TRICARE.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-MO) introduced the TRICARE Affirmation Act on March 20 to make abundantly clear that TRICARE meets all of the requirements for individual health insurance. The House voted unanimously to approve this bill. Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) then introduced a companion bill, which the Senate approved on April 14. Yesterday, President Obama signed this measure into law.

This legislation should have been approved weeks before, but Senate Republicans, led by Tom Coburn (R-OK), initially objected to Webb’s request for unanimous consent to approve the bill.

Rep. Bilbray’s claim that TRICARE will be moved out of the Defense Department and into the office that administers welfare is also false. Nick Papas, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, which handles welfare, put it plainly: “Those who depend on TRICARE should rest assured—TRICARE will not change under health insurance reform.” TRICARE spokesman Austin Camacho agreed, “TRICARE is a DoD agency, and I’m quite sure it will stay that way.”

While some irresponsible voices have tried to scare military families into opposing the Affordable Care Act for political gain, most veterans organizations have helped their members understand the real benefits of the law. American Legion Executive Director Peter Gaytan has stated that veterans can rest assured that their “VA health care is not in any way negatively affected by the new law.” Vietnam Veterans of America President John Rowan has made similar statements and chastised people who were trying to “frighten veterans and their families.”

VFW Commander Tradewell belatedly apologized for his comment that Democrats were “betraying” veterans. But he still insisted that the health care law is “flawed.”

One of the most visible and immediate benefits from the Affordable Care Act is the fact that individuals with private insurance will now be able to cover their children up until age 26. It’s important that military families receive, at a minimum, the same benefits as civilians, which is why Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) has introduced a bill that would also allow service members and veterans covered under TRICARE to insure their dependant children until age 26. This is an important piece of legislation and it’s imperative that Congress pass it.

The Affordable Care Act is intended to provide better coverage at a lower cost to more Americans—including our heroic veterans and the brave men and women who continue to serve our country. Attempting to scare them into believing otherwise for partisan purposes is the real betrayal.

Lawrence J. Korb, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Amanda Terkel is the Deputy Research Director at the Center.