How Does a Government Shutdown Affect Health Care for Military Service Members and Veterans?

FILE – A doctor examines a patient while another doctor oversees the procedure, at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman Jack Sanders)
A doctor examines a patient while another doctor oversees the procedure, at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman Jack Sanders)

Congress is facing a deadline to fund the federal government by the end of the month, or risk a potentially devastating government shutdown.

The current budget year ends Sept. 30.

While the list of agencies affected by a shutdown, and the government services available, can be confusing, there is one thing to know: For most active-duty service members and military veterans, your health benefits should not be affected.

Care at DoD Facilities During a Government Shutdown

In the event of a government shutdown, inpatient care is expected to continue as usual at Department of Defense medical treatment facilities, according to the White House. The same goes for acute and emergency outpatient care in DoD medical and dental facilities. Certification of eligibility for health-care benefits is also expected to continue.

Another exception to a shutdown is medical care for wounded warriors, including surgery to continue recovery of function and/or appearance. This care will continue, according to the latest update by the United States Office of Management and Budget.

Tricare and a Government Shutdown

For the most part, Tricare is not affected by a government shutdown. In part, that's because the Defense Department isn't one of the agencies impacted. But the Department of Homeland Security and the Coast Guard are, and Coasties use Tricare, too.

During the 2018-19 government shutdown, paychecks were suspended for about 41,000 active-duty Coast Guard members, 6,000 reservists and 8,500 civilian employees. This affected the allotments that Coasties, their family members and survivors used to pay their Tricare enrollment fees, as well as dental and vision insurance premiums with BENEFEDS, the agency running those insurance programs. Since Coast Guard members weren't getting paid, there were also no allotments going out to pay their medical and dental insurance premiums.

However, at that time, Tricare said it would still continue to cover all Coast Guard members, regardless of premium payments -- a scenario that's likely to repeat itself during the next government shutdown.

The Pay Our Coast Guard Parity Act of 2023 (H.R. 2693), introduced in April, is the latest legislative attempt to ensure members of this military branch receive pay equity during funding lapses. But there's been no action on this bill in months.

During the last shutdown, BENEFEDS said: "Depending on the length of the shutdown, we may need to bill you directly for your premiums. If you receive a direct bill, you must pay it on time to ensure continuation of your coverage. When deductions and allotments resume, we will attempt to collect any missed premiums by adjusting future deductions or allotments from your pay."

In other words, if that shutdown had continued, Coast Guard members might have had to pay premiums out of pocket to continue their insurance, even though they weren't getting paid for working every day.

VA Health Care and a Government Shutdown

The Department of Veterans Affairs says all Veterans Health Administration (VHA) facilities are expected to remain open and fully functional during a government shutdown, and 99% of VHA employees will remain on the job. Only employees performing medical and prosthetic research would be furloughed.

That means you wouldn't have to worry about seeing your VA doctor or VA Choice provider for any health-care needs. You would still be able to get your prescriptions filled, make appointments with medical providers and get any other VA benefits in the same way you did before the shutdown.

So the good news is that your VA health-care and other benefits are still available, and most Tricare users are unaffected.

Coast Guard members could see more hassles. But remember, there is always help available at Coast Guard Mutual Assistance.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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