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National Defense Authorization Act For Fiscal Year 2004—Continued

Under the previous order, there will now be 5 minutes equally divided prior to a vote with respect to the Graham of South Carolina amendment.

Who yields time?

The Senator from South Carolina.

Sen. Lindsey Graham

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If it is appropriate with Senator Sessions, I will proceed.

Sen. Jeff Sessions

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Mr. President, I understand we are in 5 minutes debate on each side and then there will be a vote on this amendment.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss

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It is 5 minutes evenly divided.

Sen. Jeff Sessions

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I am pleased to yield to the Senator from South Carolina on his time.

The Senator from South Carolina is recognized.

Sen. Lindsey Graham

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Mr. President, I thank the Senator for yielding. I have been working with Senators on both sides of the aisle to approve a compensation package for guardsmen and reservists. We have a modification to Senator Daschle's amendment. I second-degreed his amendment last night. We have reached a compromise where we merged the best of the two packages. Basically, what we are trying to do is make sure that Guard and Reserve members, if they choose to, can become members of TRICARE, the military health care network for military members and their families, by paying a premium. It would be what a retiree pays plus $100 for an enlisted Guard or Reserve member, $150 for an officer. So it is a very good deal for the Reserve and Guard families. They pay into the system if they choose to be a member of TRICARE. That way when they are called to active duty they do not leave one health care plan for another. They will have continuity of health care. They do not get bounced around between systems. It would really help with recruitment and retention. It has been a bipartisan effort like none I have ever experienced.

I want to add cosponsors, and then I will yield for Senator DeWine, who has been a tremendous leader on this issue. I ask unanimous consent that the following Senators be added as cosponsors to this compromise product: Senators Clinton, DeWine, Kennedy, Miller, Allen, Leahy, Stabenow, Mikulski, Landrieu, Chambliss, Campbell, Collins, and Dorgan.

I compliment Senator Daschle for his fine efforts in making this possible.

Without objection, it is so ordered.

The Senator from Ohio.

Sen. Michael DeWine

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I thank the entire military coalition for all their hard work and support for this effort. I thank all of my colleagues. I also thank General Smith of the Ohio National Guard for all they have done to keep this initiative moving forward.

As my colleagues are well aware, our amendment would offer a comprehensive approach to health coverage for members of our military reserve component. Put simply, it would provide a critical health care safety net for service members and their families by offering uninterrupted, affordable health insurance.

I can't emphasize enough how important this is both as a readiness and as a retention issue.

We know how important it is that we fund our military hardware and base installations. But, at the same time, we can't ignore our military personnel. We can't ignore the very men and women who voluntarily lay their lives on the line to protect our national security. It's the very least we can do, particularly as we continue to rely more and more on our Reserve and National Guard.

Our amendment is an important sign of support for those called to serve, as well as their families. I urge my colleagues to support it.

I yield the floor.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy

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Mr. President, this amendment is intended to close an unfortunate and unacceptable gap in health insurance coverage for families of Reserve and Guard members who are called up for active duty in the Armed Forces. The amendment is a needed step forward in taking care of our troops and their families, and it includes most of the provisions of S. 647 that I introduced earlier this year to close the gap.

Today's military relies more heavily than ever on the Reserve and Guard. Over 215,000 Guard and Reserve soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen have been mobilized in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Noble Eagle. One challenge they should not have to face is maintaining their health insurance coverage. The problem is that few employers are willing to continue health insurance coverage for Guard and Reserve employees and family members when they are activated.

According to the General Accounting Office, nearly 80 percent of reservists have health care coverage when they are working in the private sector. Almost all of them would like to maintain that coverage when they are activated, in order to provide continued health benefits for their family members. The military's TRICARE coverage works well for the reservists when they are activated, but it is not a realistic alternative for family members since more TRICARE providers are located close to military bases that are often far from the homes where the family members of the reservists continue to live.

In fact, 95 percent of active-duty military families live near bases and health care facilities, so TRICARE is readily available to them. But only 25 percent of Guard and Reserve families live near bases, so TRICARE is inaccessible for them. Nevertheless, the other reservists feel they have no alternative, since their private insurance has lapsed. So they change to TRICARE while they are activated, and then change back to their former plan when the activation ends.

This amendment will enable them to enroll their family members in TRICARE, too. It is the right thing to do but it solves only part of the problem.

When TRICARE is not a realistic alternative for family members, they have the option to maintain their private health insurance plan during the activation. The frequency and length of activations for Guard and Reserves are disruptive and stressful enough. We should do everything we can to enable families to maintain their coverage and avoid unnecessary upheaval.

We had hoped to achieve that goal in this amendment as well, but the consent agreement means we cannot include it. So I urge the Senate to adopt the pending amendment to make TRICARE available to Reserve and Guard personnel and families and let us work together to deal with this other aspect of the problem, too.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy

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Mr. President, I rise today in strong support of the Graham-Daschle amendment to the fiscal year 2004 Defense authorization bill. This amendment will take a much needed step to improve the readiness and strength of the National Guard and Reserve by ensuring that more of our citizen-soldiers have adequate health insurance.

Almost 220,000 members of the Guard and Reserve answered the call to duty for the war in Iraq. These volunteer soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines have responded with professionalism, skill, and honor. In my own State, hundreds of members of the Green Mountain Boys from the Vermont National Guard were deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the United States to answer the call to service. Our Nation's military would not be as large or as strong without these dedicated--and often-used--soldiers. Time and time again, the Total Force concept that we in Congress developed and promoted has given our military unparalled strength and unity.

The increased callups of the Reserves since September 11 has raised some problems that threaten the long-term readiness of this critical force and--in turn--of our entire military structure. A recent GAO study underscored that more than 20 percent of those reservists ready to deploy at a moment's notice do not have health insurance. At least 500 of the 4,000 members of the Vermont National Guard currently do not have coverage. These shortfalls mean that there are reservists who are reporting for duty who have not had routine access to doctors, to treatment, or medicine they might need, or to hospitals. These soldiers--ready to make the ultimate sacrifice at any moment--may not be in the best physical shape because our Government is not protecting its investment.

At the same time, many families in Vermont and in other States have told me about substantial turbulence from the callups. Even beyond the understandable worry of watching a loved one head off for battle and dealing with loss of income from the temporary departure from a civilian job, families have had to experience the frustration and confusion created by switching health insurance plans. This disruption has resonated from the home front to the frontlines, becoming a factor in reservists' willingness to stay in service. These patriots make selfless decisions to sacrifice time with their families. Some sacrifice their own lives in the line of duty to their country. When we ask a reservist or a guardsman to answer the call, it is our duty to help them take proper care of their families and to make the transition to active duty as easy as possible.

This amendment is a version of S. 852, the National Guard and Reserve Comprehensive Health Benefits Act of 2003. I worked closely with Senators Graham, Daschle, DeWine, Clinton, and Smith in crafting this legislation to deal with medical readiness problems for our National Guard in two main ways. First, the legislation makes members of the Guard and Reserve eligible to enroll in TRICARE on a cost-share basis. Second, it allows families to apply to the Defense Department to receive reimbursement for keeping their current health plans during a deployment. The reimbursement is capped to ensure that the costs are no greater than putting the family on TRICARE.

This legislation is cost-effective, solving the problem with the minimum necessary expenditures. The Congressional Budget Office has informally scored the entire bill at $4 billion over 5 years, going from about $350 million in the first year and leveling out at about $1.1 billion per year in the fifth year. Figures from the GAO report confirm these cost estimates.

This Reserve health care amendment will cost far less than increasing active-duty end-strength or than having to substantially increase recruiting and retention programs--steps which will be necessary if adequate support is not provided to our Reserves.

Let me make sure everyone is clear about what this vote means. A vote in support of the amendment is a vote to ensure a vibrant future for the Guard and Reserve. It is a vote that recognizes, as have all of the major military associations, that we cannot continue to have a Total Force if the benefit structure for the Reserves is not improved. A vote against the Daschle amendment means treating the Guard and Reserve as low-paid contractors to the militry--the temporary hires who can do the job but who cost less because they do not have the proper salaries, benefits, and protections as their full-time counterparts.

At a time when the Nation has never relied more heavily on the National Guard and Reserve, I urge all Senators to vote in support of the Graham-Daschle amendment, which will ensure a healthy, effective military into the foreseeable future.

I ask unanimous consent that several endorsement letters from various military Reserve associations be printed in the Record.

There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows:

Dear Senator Leahy. On behalf of the men and women of the National Guard Association of the United States (NGAUS), I thank you for the stalwart support you have given the National Guard over the years. The NGAUS is pleased to offer its support for your legislation entitled the National Guard and Reserve Comprehensive Health Benefits Act of 2003. This important legislation would offer members of the selected reserve and their families, the opportunity to participate in the Tricare on a cost-share basis; provide a partial subsidy of private health insurance premiums for family members of Guardsmen who wish to retain their private health insurance; and improve transition coverage upon deactivation. The National Guard and Reserve contributions to the ongoing operations in Iraq, fighting the global war on terrorism, protecting the homeland, and supporting contingency operations around the world are a key indicator of the importance of maintaining a high level of readiness. The General Accounting Office recently found more than twenty-one percent of National Guard and Reserve members do not have health coverage. Forty percent of those individuals without insurance are in the junior enlisted ranks. Units with nearly twenty-one percent of its member unable to deploy due to medical reasons has a major impact on the ability of that unit to complete its mission. Providing Tricare during all phases of service can decrease an already lengthy mobilization process by ensuring medical readiness is routinely sustained. Medical readiness is an important factor in unit readiness. Recent National Guard mobilizations have demonstrated how quickly the guard can be ready to fulfill their federal mission. Some of these notifications for mobilization have given Guardsmen hours and days, as opposed to the days and weeks normally required. This reduced ramp also requires members of the Guard to maintain their family readiness plans in order to lessen the complications and distractions during deployments. Providing continuity of health coverage for family members will ensure those who support our service members and make it possible for them to serve, are provided for while their loved ones are away. As always, the NGAUS stands ready to assist you and looks forward to our continued relationship ensuring a strong and viable National Guard. Sincerely,