Veterans push for fixes to health care overhaul

Law isn't clear on where TRICARE fits in, groups say.

Organizations representing the nation's military veterans are keeping up pressure on Congress to prevent the landmark healthcare law from shortchanging veterans and other military personnel.

The lobbying comes despite assurances from the Obama administration and key lawmakers that the law protects military personnel and veterans. But the Veterans of Foreign Wars is refusing to accept the claims at face value.

"We don't want assurances," VFW national spokesman Joe Davis said. "We want it written into law."

The concerns stem from imprecise language in the health law signed by President Obama on March 23. Under that law Americans must buy private health insurance by 2014 or pay a financial penalty. However, citizens don't have to purchase health insurance if they have "minimum essential coverage," such as employer-sponsored plans.

But missing from the law's language on "minimum essential coverage" is the military's TRICARE plan that covers nearly 10 million service people, retirees and dependents. Some Veterans Affairs programs, including those covering dependents with birth defects are also missing.

The VFW is taking an aggressive role among veterans groups demanding that Congress complete legislation that nails down those assurances into law. Davis said assurances do not carry the force of law and would not have much effect on future Congresses with different priorities. The American Legion and the Disabled American Veterans said they are working with Congress to protect active and former service members.

Steve Robertson, legislative director for the American Legion, said the group would continue to track regulations that would impact veterans' health care. "We'll be there every step of the way," he said.

As a result of mounting concern, two bills are moving in Congress and could become law, clarifying the healthcare situation for the military and veterans.

The protests from military advocates and Republican opponents of the health bill, spurred the administration to issue assurances that the law covers those affiliated with the military.

"Fears that veterans' health care and TRICARE will be undermined by the health reform legislation are unfounded," VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said prior to the House vote on the bill.

Similar assurances were issued by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

And in a March 21 letter to House Rules Chairwoman Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., chairmen from the House Armed Services, Education and Labor, Veterans' Affairs, Energy and Commerce, and Ways and Means committees wrote that it was never the intent to undermine or change the military's healthcare plans and committed to looking "into this issue further to ensure that no unintended consequences may arise and to take any legislative action that might be necessary."

In the uproar's wake, House Armed Services Chairman Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., succeeded to win by a rare unanimous vote, 403-0, a bill to "fix" the healthcare law by assuring that the military programs qualify under the new law. But a companion bill by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., still needs Senate approval for the measure to become law. That is expected when Congress reconvenes.

Before the spring recess, Senate Veterans' Affairs Chairman Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, ushered through the Senate a bill clarifying that the health care that the VA provides Vietnam and Korean war veterans' children born with spina bifida or other certain birth defects meets the standard of minimum healthcare coverage.

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