Soldiers from the Hawaii Army National Guard preparing an HH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopter for flight as part of rescue operations in 2018.

Soldiers from the Hawaii Army National Guard preparing an HH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopter for flight as part of rescue operations in 2018. Smith Collection/Gado / GETTY IMAGES

Bill wants to solve the coverage gap for National Guard and reservists by extending VA eligibility

Legislation from Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., proposes to expand VA health care benefits to personnel in the reserve components when not on active duty to help ensure “force readiness.”

New legislation introduced Friday seeks to solve the challenge of providing non-active duty members of the National Guard and military reservists with health care coverage by opening eligibility for Veterans Affairs Department benefits. 

The bill (HR 7975) — sponsored by Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo. — would amend VA statutes to expand eligibility for Veterans Benefits Administration health coverage to members of the Army National Guard, Air National Guard, Army Reserve, Navy Reserve, Marine Reserve, Air Force Reserve and Coast Guard Reserve not on active orders, so they “have the health care needed to maintain force readiness.”

Currently, most guardsmen and reservists, as well as their dependents, are covered under the Defense Department’s uniformed services health care program, known as TRICARE, which offers plans for active duty reserve, Ready Reserve and retired reserve personnel with at least 20 qualifying years of service. 

The types of TRICARE coverage available for guardsmen and reservists depend on their activation status. Personnel with more than 30 days of active duty are eligible for health and dental benefits, while deactivated personnel may maintain 180 days of additional coverage through the Transitional Assistance Management Program. 

However, inactive personnel, who have 30 days of active duty or less, have to purchase coverage in either TRICARE Reserve Select or TRICARE Retired Reserve plans — which they aren’t eligible for if already enrolled in the Federal Employee Health Benefits program — while there or other plans to extend coverage once TRICARE has expired. 

Providing guardsmen and reservists with zero-cost TRICARE coverage has remained an elusive goal for Congress for several years. 

Retired Maj. Gen. Frank McGinn, president of the National Guard Association of the United States, told the House and Senate Affairs Committees on March 13 that there were 130,000 reserve component members “without any healthcare at all.”

“We do not require them to go to the range on their own dime, or even for enlisted to purchase their own uniforms. Yet for healthcare, the one thing that ensures they are physically able to deploy, the servicemember is required to purchase their own, out of pocket,” he said. “As such, we have units with medical deployability rates far below the 75% goal set by DOD. With the state of current events around the world, we cannot afford any percentage of our team to sit the bench.”

McGinn backed other legislation, such as the Healthcare for Our Troops Act and Dental Care for Our Troops Act, both sponsored by Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., that was introduced several times up until last year and planned to offer no-cost TRICARE Reserve Select plans to guardsmen and reservists. Neither bill made it to the House floor in 2023.  

But Neguse’s bill seeks to streamline the eligibility concerns, by foregoing zero-cost TRICARE in favor of providing benefits through the VBA. 

The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. 

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