WASHINGTON -- The Defense Department sent a strong signal Monday that it intends to open the military to transgender troops with the release of proposed changes to Tricare. The department wants the health insurance to cover hormone treatment for gender dysphoria, the clinical term for wanting to transition to a male or female gender, according to a notice published in the Federal Register. The insurance change is likely to be scrutinized by Congress, where Republicans have been critical of the recent landmark decision to open combat roles to women. But the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said he was open to the idea as long as transgender servicemembers can do their assigned jobs. Thousands of transgender troops continue to serve in hiding even as the military repealed the "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gay service members in 2011 and decided last year to integrate women into combat occupational specialties. "I do not believe that the military should be an experimental laboratory for social issues. But I also believe you focus on capability, getting the job done, protecting the country and don't worry so much about a person's color, gender, whatever it is," said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the committee chairman. "That's what counts and beyond that we'll have to look at the details of what they are proposing." It was unclear Monday how much resistance could come from lawmakers. Integration of women into combat roles is still causing waves on Capitol Hill. The Senate Armed Services had an oversight hearing scheduled for Tuesday. On the House side, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said last month that Navy Secretary Ray Mabus was a greater threat to the Marines than the Islamic State because he pushed ahead with the integration. "DoD doesn't have two nickels to rub together, given its shortfalls and priorities, and now there's wisdom that this is an appropriate and necessary application of resources and funds?" said Joe Kasper, Hunter's chief of staff. "It's ridiculous, not just because it's an excessive accommodation, but it underscores where exactly the department's priorities sit." The Tricare changes could not end the prohibition on transgender troops but it would set the stage for such a move. The insurer now blocks any coverage for gender dysphoria, which can be treated through counseling, hormone treatment and surgery. "This proposed change will permit coverage of all non-surgical medically necessary and appropriate care in the treatment of gender dysphoria, consistent with the program requirements applicable for treatment of all mental or physical illnesses," according to the DoD notice. Coverage of cosmetic surgery such as breast implants, face lifts and other sex or gender modifications would still be barred under federal law. The Defense Department will take comments on the Tricare proposal for two months. The American Military Partner Association, an advocate for transgender troops, called the move incredibly important and could help extend crucial medical care. "As we await a decision from the secretary of defense on whether to lift the ban on transgender troops serving openly and honestly, this news is definitely encouraging," AMPA President Ashley Broadway-Mack said in a released statement. The group estimates there are 15,500 transgender servicemembers in the military. Last summer, Defense Secretary Ash Carter called for a review of the ban on transgender service members that was to wrap up last month and ordered all discharges to first be reviewed by one of his undersecretaries. "We have transgender soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines -- real, patriotic Americans -- who I know are being hurt by an outdated, confusing, inconsistent approach that's contrary to our value of service and individual merit," Carter said.
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