July 16, 2003
DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE APPROPRIATIONS ACT, 2004
Mr. GRAHAM of South Carolina. Madam President, I thank Senator Daschle for the great help he has been and for his partnership on this piece of legislation. I associate myself with his remarks about the TRICARE program being extended to family members of the Guard and Reserve.
During the last Desert Shield-Desert Storm conflict, I was in the Air National Guard unit that was called up to active duty. Planes, pilots, and crews went over and did a magnificent job. I was in a support role as a military lawyer. I was called to active dutyalong with doctors and other folksto take care of families who were left behind by providing legal services.
When a family member is deployed in the Guard and Reserve, more likely than not the military pay will be smaller than the civilian pay. The Soldiers and Sailors Civil Leave Act allows a renegotiation of loans and a restructuring of debt so the military pay can cover family expenses. You are not successful all the time. I spent hours negotiating new loans, house payments, and car payments so the military pay would cover the family expenses. But one thing that we haven't addressed is health care.
As Senator Daschle indicated, there are many members without health care. But for those who have health care, once they are activated, the physician network that your family is used to is replaced by the military.
In the case of our unitSwamp Fox Unit in the South Carolina Air National Guard that I served in from 1991 to the presentthey have been deployed six times. That is not unusual. You have families bouncing from one health care network to the other.
We are trying to make sure that continuity of health care is available to Guard and Reserve families by allowing them, in addition to their membership in the Guard and Reserve, access to the TRICARE military health care system when they are in their civilian capacity as well as when they are activated. So when they are activated, there is no major upheaval in their lives when it comes to health care. They will have a safety net.
You can't be everything to everybody. But they are having to pay a premium that is fair to them, helps reduce the cost of the bill similar to what retirees pay.
It is important to me to put this on the table, and do it in a way so we can afford it. I think the premium helps offset the cost.
I am here to report that I have talked with the administration and the Pentagon which have concerns about implementing this program now because we haven't budgeted for it in this budget cycle. We are going to compromise on the Defense authorization bill and initiate a study of the best way to provide TRICARE coverage to Guard and Reserve members in terms of cost, affordability, and availability. We will have that study. Next year, Senator Daschle and all of the others who have worked with us have my solemn promise we are going to go after the money necessary to fund this program.
The proposal we are speaking about today has a statement in it that they are willing to help fund this if we can find the money. This sense-of-the-Senate resolution is important in the sense that we are letting our Guard and Reserve families know we haven't forgotten about them and that we are trying to do this in an affordable and efficient way by studying it for a year. But help is going to be on the way.
The recruiting and retention problems that we suffer in the Guard and Reserve we haven't yet begun to understand. You have some Guard and Reserve units that are indispensable to the war-fighting machine that we have created and which is so effective. Their employers have suffered greatly because they are gone from their work stations in the civilian community a lot. Employers have been paying the difference between the military pay and the civilian pay in many instances.
We are going to work in a bipartisan fashion to have a tax credit. The retirement age is 60. On active duty, you can retire after 20 years of service. As a Guard or Reserve member, I am 5 years away. I have to get 5 good years somehow so I can get my retirement. I am not worried about me. But we have a proposal that for every 2 years you stay on to help your country, we will allow you to retire early. That is not part of the package we are talking about in TRICARE but it will be part of a package to upgrade Guard and Reserve benefits. The total cost for all threehealth care, reduced retirement, and tax creditsis in the $15 billion range over 5 years. That is a lot of money. But I agree with Senator Daschle, we can't afford not to do it.
I ask all of my colleagues to look at this closely and support this sense-of-the-Senate resolution so we can sit down with the administration next year in good faiththey have been very good about dealing with this issue in a responsible way this yearand come up with the money and get a commitment from the administration, the Pentagon, the House, and the Senate to fund this program.
If we improve the benefit package, not only are we doing what we should do to help our Guard and Reserve families, which they will appreciate, but we will have a better chance of retaining these great Americans because we are asking so much of them. It is time for us to deliver a better benefit package because they have really delivered for this country.
I appreciate working with Senator Daschle, and the administration has been very good to work with. This time next year I hope we can take the floor and tell the Reserve and Guard families of this country that they have a benefit package that shows how much we respect and care for them.
I yield the floor.