During the World War II and Korean War eras, military recruits were often lured with the promise of health care for life if they served for 20 years in the armed forces. Higher-ups in the military encouraged recruiters to make such promises, records show.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled in the case Schism v. United States last November that such promises weren't the military's to make. "Congress-and only Congress-can authorize the benefits that a retired federal employee, whether civilian or military, is entitled to receive," the court ruled.
In the case, Air Force and Navy veteran William Schism and Robert Reinlie, who served in the Army and the Air Force, argued that the promises of free health care made to them constituted a binding contract on the government's part.
"While we are sympathetic to the plaintiffs' position and acknowledge the likelihood that plaintiffs believed these promises and relied on them, the government is not legally bound to abide by them," the appeals court ruled.
The Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of that ruling, so it will remain in force.
Veterans groups and their advocates in Congress decried the appeals court's decision when it was issued last year. "In the period following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States military has enjoyed record levels of retention," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "The Department of Defense cannot expect to continue this success when they do not deliver on health care commitments."
In the 2001 Defense authorization act, Congress created a system to provide full health care coverage for aging veterans from that point on. Schism and Reinlie's case involved medical expenses incurred between 1995 and 2001.