Military Still Promising Retiree Medical Benefits

PENSACOLA, Fla. - The military continued making promises of free medical care for its retirees through the eve of another Veterans Day although government attorneys insist no such guarantee exists.

The Army's offer of "lifetime medical coverage" on a Web page designed to recruit lawyers for the Judge Advocate General Corps is the latest example of how service personnel have been lied to about medical benefits, retired Air Force Col. George "Bud" Day said yesterday.

Day, a Vietnam veteran and Medal of Honor winner, practices law in nearby Fort Walton Beach and represents two other military retirees in a federal lawsuit pending in Pensacola over health benefits.

They want to make the government deliver on promises of free care to 1.4 million retirees who are over 65, served at least 20 years and joined the military before passage of a law governing such benefits in 1956.

Day has submitted similar recruiting literature, military manuals and regulations, some published long after the 1956 law, that make the same promise as evidence against the government.

The law permits treatment of retirees at military hospitals and other medical facilities only on a space-available basis, something not mentioned in the Army's Internet advertisement.

With recent base closings and other reductions, retirees are being turned away in growing numbers and forced to seek treatment from civilian doctors through the military's Tricare medical program.

However, retirees over 65, including 71-year-old Day and his clients, have been diverted to Medicare and the government has been deducting Medicare fees from their retirement pay. Many are purchasing supplementary insurance for expenses not covered by the civilian medical program for the elderly.

Lt. Col. Kevin Kelley, a spokesman for the Army's recruiting command at Fort Knox, Ky., acknowledged that the Web page advertisement was "a problem" but had no immediate explanation.

"I feel guilty about making these promises to new enlistees and re-enlistees, and feel betrayed by our government," wrote retired Army Sgt. 1st Class John Fleming of Edmonds, Wash.

District Judge Roger Vinson, a former naval aviator, rejected a government motion to dismiss the suit in June. He hasn't yet ruled on separate motions for summary judgment by each side or Day's request for expansion to a class action covering all over-65 retirees who entered service before the 1956 law, and their spouses.

Government lawyers argue for a summary judgment on grounds that the military has no obligation to provide free care to Day's clients, World War II and Korean War veterans, because they retired after the 1956 law went into effect.