Chairman removes health care provision from defense measure

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., has employed a rarely used authority to strike a provision in the committee-passed $441.6 billion defense authorization bill that would have opened the military's Tricare health care system to all National Guard members and reservists.

The provision, one of only a handful of Democrat victories during the 14-hour markup last week, would push the military's mandatory spending levels beyond those allowed under the fiscal 2006 budget resolution. The bill is scheduled for floor consideration Wednesday.

"I have consulted the chairman of the Budget Committee on this matter, and he informs me that if the bill is brought forward to the floor in violation of the Budget Act, he will exercise his prerogative to raise the applicable point of order and thus prevent its consideration on the floor," Hunter wrote in a Friday memo to the committee.

After the committee's markup, Hunter asked and received unanimous consent to alter the bill if mandatory spending limits exceeded allowed limits. The vote is routine for the committee, but the authority has not been used in at least the last five years, said a House aide.

Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., sponsored the Tricare amendment, which passed Wednesday night on a 32-30 vote despite opposition from Hunter and other leading committee Republicans. The next day, Hunter asked the Congressional Budget Office to estimate the price tag for Taylor's amendment.

In a Friday memo to Hunter, CBO said the amendment would cost the military roughly $230 million in FY06, and $4.6 billion through 2010. It also would skew average costs for the Federal Employees Health Benefits program because many of the 120,000 Guardsmen and reservists who work for the federal government would shift to the less expensive Tricare system.

The shift would cause a spike in FEHB premiums, forcing the government to increase its per capita costs. Costs for employees enrolled in FEHB would decrease by $340 million through 2010, while the cost of retiree benefits would grow by $94 million over the same period, according to CBO.

In a statement Monday, Taylor said many of the problems with the amendment could be solved by prohibiting federally employed reservists from dropping FEHB for Tricare coverage. Taylor plans to submit a revised amendment to the Rules Committee that would include that prohibition, his spokeswoman said.

"The bottom line is that this is a technicality that could easily be resolved if the chairman wanted to get it resolved," Taylor said in a statement.

Several military organizations are backing the Taylor amendment and mobilizing their members. The National Guard Association of the United States plans to issue a legislative alert to its members later today, urging them to contact their representatives. The organization also is drafting letters to Hunter and Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., said Michele Trafficante, who works in legislative affairs at the Guard association.

An estimated 80 percent of Guardsmen and reservists already have access to non-military healthcare programs. During the markup, Hunter said the measure would lead to a "gaming" of the Tricare system, giving employers a way to drop these so-called weekend warriors from their healthcare rolls and stick the government with the bill.

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