Our heroes deserve promised health care

Our heroes deserve promised health care By U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson A promise made should be a promise kept.

Sadly, our country has abandoned this fundamental principle when dealing with our military retirees and veterans. Too often, military health care is viewed as an afterthought. It is time to make military health care our priority.

I recently introduced S. 2003, the Keep Our Promise to America's Military Retirees Act, legislation that honors our nation's commitment to the men and women who served in the military by upholding the promise of health care coverage in return for their selfless dedication.

For years, men and women who joined the military were promised lifetime health care coverage for themselves and their families. Prior to June 7, 1956, no statutory health care plan existed for military personnel. The health care coverage that followed was dependent upon the space available at military treatment facilities. Post-Cold War downsizing, base closures, and the reduction of health care services at military bases have limited the health care options available to military retirees.

In South Dakota, I have heard from many military retirees who are not receiving the health care they deserve. Some military retirees in our state are forced to drive hundreds of miles to receive care. As a final disgrace, military retirees are currently kicked off the military's Tricare health care system when they turn 65.

My bill restores adequate health care coverage to all military retirees. For those retirees who entered the armed services before June 7, 1956, it allows military retirees to enroll in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP), with the United States paying 100 percent of the costs. Military retirees who joined the armed services after 1956 will be allowed to enroll in FEHBP or continue to participate in Tricare � even after they turn 65, with a co-payment.

All the weapons and training upgrades in the world will be rendered ineffective if military personnel and their families are not afforded a good "quality of life" opportunity. Poor living conditions not only affect the morale of military families, but affect the preparedness of our military units. It also discourages the retention and recruitment of qualified personnel.

Last year, the Senate began to address critical recruitment and retention problems currently facing our nation's armed services. The payraises and retirement reform enacted were both long overdue improvements for our active duty military personnel. I also offered an amendment to increase veterans health care by $3 billion. Ultimately, we were able to increase the veterans health care budget by $1.7 billion.

We have a long way to go before we restore our country's active duty personnel, military retirees, and veterans with the benefits they deserve. However, I will keep working to improve the quality of life for our nation's heroes and ensure that our country honors its commitment to those who serve it. It's simply the right thing, and the smart thing, to do.

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