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More on health care reform and veterans

Since the health reform vote, there’s been this rumor floating around that veterans’ benefits won’t qualify as minimum essential coverage under the new law.   According to the rumor, veterans will be forced to buy private coverage or pay the tax penalty under the individual mandate.  None of this is true, but since we keep seeing it pop up, let’s look at where the rumor came from and why it’s wrong.

It started with a statement released by Veterans of Foreign Wars.  In it, VFW President Thomas Tradewell accused the President and Democratic leadership of “betraying America’s veterans” by failing to “fully protect the health care programs provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the military’s Tricare system.”  Tradewell added:

“Military service is based on the fundamental principle of trust, and once lost, it is virtually impossible to regain.  That is why I am urging the House to vote ‘no’ today, then go back and fix the bill with the language proposed by Skelton, Buyer, and McKeon, and then come back and vote your conscience.”

A few things about Tradewell’s comments:

One: It appears that he willfully misread the bill and ignored reports from all levels of government stating that the bill would have no effect on veterans programs.  For example, here’s Tammy Duckworth, a double amputee combat veteran, now serving as Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs:

Let me be unambiguous: The healthcare that Veterans receive through the VA system, including dependents of certain veterans enrolled in the CHAMPVA program, will be safe and sound under health reform. The Secretary of Veterans Affairs would continue to maintain sole authority over the system and for enhancing the quality and access for all eligible Veterans.

In addition, TRICARE will continue to be available for all eligible servicemen and women, and their families. Those who are covered by TRICARE would meet the shared responsibility requirement for individuals to have insurance, thereby exempting such members of the uniformed services and dependents from being assessed any sort of penalty.

Two: Tradewell ignores the fact that the House had already passed the fix he proposed.  The health reform bill already specifically stated that veterans programs and the military’s Tricare for Life program (which provides coverage to service members and their families) would meet the minimum essential coverage requirement.  Other Tricare programs weren’t mentioned by name, but as HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius repeatedly stated, they would meet the coverage requirement.  However, just to reaffirm that Tricare would count, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed a separate bill, HR 4887, the TRICARE Affirmation Act, which according to the bill’s sponsor, Ike Skelton:

To reassure our military service members and their families and make it perfectly clear that they will not be negatively affected by this legislation, my bill, H.R. 4887, explicitly states in law that these health plans meet the minimum requirements for individual health insurance.

This all happened before Tradewell published his remarks.

Three: VFW released his statement, riddled with inaccuracies, on the day the House would vote on the final health reform bill.  The timing makes it appear as though it was simply part of a last minute effort to kill the bill, rather than ensure that veterans health programs were protected.  Richard Smith, editor of the VoteVets.org blog, Vet Voice, has complained that the leadership of the VFW and its political action committee acts as “a subsidiary of the Republican party.”  He points to two races in the 2006 elections:

In Virginia, an incumbent Republican Senator who received a deferment from service in Vietnam was endorsed by the VFW’s political action committee over a former Navy Secretary who was awarded the Navy Cross while serving as a Marine Officer in the conflict. Also, in a House race that same PAC endorsed a Republican candidate with no service record over an Iraq Veteran who left two legs on the battlefield.

Still Tradewell’s health reform comments were reported by Fox News, in a confusing story which bent over backwards to make it appear as though there was still controversy over whether veterans benefits would be protected.  Meanwhile Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the American Legion, Congressional Veterans Affairs Committees, and Vietnam Veterans of America released their own statements decrying the “scare tactics” of VFW and Fox News.  A few days later, Tradewell apologized for using “too harsh of a word” in his original statement, but went on to again criticize the bill for failing to protect veterans.

According to Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., the House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman:

“In some ways it was worse than his original statement.  We believe there is nothing in health care reform that harms veterans health care. If there is something in there, we will fix it.”

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