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Was Free Health Care for Life Promised?

A reader of  Tom Philpott's "Military Update" recently wrote him commenting on Senator Lindsay Graham's remarks about the promise of free health care for life for military retirees.

The following is an excerpt from Tom's latest "Military Forum" in which he explains the background and lawsuit history behind Sen. Graham's statement.

One of your recent columns quotes Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) as stating, "I don't believe anybody was promised free lifetime medical care.  That's a popular myth." He further stated, "I think we have an obligation to the retired force to be generous and to be compassionate to help recruiting and retention.  But, you know, there was never any contract with anybody that, for the rest of your life, you will get free medical care. That's not part of the deal and was never part of the deal."

Colonel George "Bud" Day, a lawyer and a Medal of Honor winner, took this implied free medical care issue for retiree to the Supreme Court and the court, in a compromise verdict, ruled that any military veteran who served prior to a date in 1956 and were honorably retired were eligible for free medical care under TRICARE For Life. There are few of us still living and our numbers decrease daily.

To extol the value of decreasing this hard-earned care to these veterans is abominable. Our block of veterans who qualify for this legally binding medical care is small and our political power is, for all practical senses, miniscule.  But when the bureaucrats feast on $16 croissants, the GSA spends hundreds of thousands of dollars for trips to Hawaii and our Secret Service spends per diem and expense money on prostitutes, maybe it is understandable that we protest Graham's attitude toward veterans' medical costs.

JOSEPH A. McKLOSKI USAF-Ret Via email

The lawsuit that Col. George "Bud" Day (USAF-Ret.) brought on behalf of an older generation of military retirees raised public awareness of the decline in promised health care and spurred Congress to enact TRICARE for Life and a robust pharmacy benefit.  The outcome of the lawsuit, however, wasn't the "compromise" victory you suggest.

In 2002, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., ruled 9-to-4 that whatever recruiters had promised was not binding unless supported by statute, and that Congress never passed a law authorizing free lifetime health care.  The court acknowledged the "moral claims" of plaintiffs but rejected every legal argument on their behalf.  These were arguments a three-judge panel of the same court had embraced a year earlier.

The Supreme Court brought Day's remarkable seven-year court fight to a close in 2003 when it declined to hear an appeal.  By then, however, Congress had enacted TRICARE for Life and the TRICARE Senior Pharmacy program, the biggest expansion in government-funded health benefits in decades.  This left some retirees satisfied that the promise of lifetime care had been restored.  Day, pointing to the Medicare Part B premium retirees must pay, disagreed.

"Paying a hundred bucks a month is not free," he said. – Tom Philpott

If you have questions or comments about any of Tom Philpott's 'Military Update' articles, write to Military Forum, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA 20120-1111, send e-mail to militaryforum@aol.com or visit www.militaryupdate.com.

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