Defense bill aims to beef up health care for military personnel

The fiscal 2011 Defense authorization bill, which the House Armed Services Committee approved late Wednesday, would expand several military health programs, including TRICARE.

For the most part, the new health care reform law does not affect TRICARE, but the committee voted to include language in the fiscal 2011 Defense authorization bill that allows TRICARE beneficiaries to extend coverage to their dependent children until age 26.

"Because TRICARE is already such a good program, it already would have met all of the minimum requirements of health care reform," the committee summary of the bill stated. "However, congressional leadership made and kept a promise to ensure that TRICARE was not impacted in any way by the health reform bill. Unfortunately, this means that TRICARE beneficiaries are not currently able to extend health coverage to their adult dependent children up to age 26 like the rest of the country."

The authorization bill also includes provisions aimed at ensuring military personnel have access to robust mental health benefits. The committee's detailed summary of the bill states that lawmakers remain concerned about the lack of qualified health care professionals, particularly mental health providers, available to treat service members.

As it stands now, the bill would require the military services to increase their authorized mental health providers by 25 percent and to offer more scholarships under the Health Professions Scholarship and Financial Assistance Program.

It also would allow program participants to receive payments from the Active-Duty Health Professions Loan Repayment Program to encourage students to pursue military careers.

The military faces the dual challenge of more efficiently providing benefits to service members, their families and retirees, while also controlling the expanding cost of health care without resorting to excessive fee increases. The authorization bill would attempt to reconcile those challenges by creating a Unified Medical Command, modeled after the Special Operations Command, which coordinates special operations across the military services.

"The Unified Medical Command would remove many of the challenges in place under the current structure that are caused by disconnect between requirements determination, performed by the services, and resource allocation, currently controlled by the assistant secretary of Defense for health affairs," the committee statement noted. "The Military Health System has an organizational structure unlike any other in the Department of Defense, and given its demonstrated shortcomings, the committee believes that it is time to move toward a proven command structure."

The health care-related provisions were among the least controversial in the legislation, and both Republican and Democratic members of the committee said the bill makes a strong statement of support for service members.

"Our military personnel are the heart and soul of our national security, and this bill makes sure that our troops and their loved ones are receiving the first class benefits that they deserve," Skelton said.

"For the brave men and women who have served our nation, this bill enhances the benefits and services available to them and their families," said Rep. Mary Fallin, R-Okla.

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