Rumsfeld opposes expanding military health-care benefit

WASHINGTON — Offering inactive National Guard members and reservists the same health-care benefits as active-duty soldiers could force cuts in other areas of the military budget, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told lawmakers in a letter this week.

Rumsfeld said he would recommend that President Bush veto the defense authorization bill if it included a Senate plan to expand TRICARE, the military health program. He estimated the change could cost $5 billion per year, although Democrats disputed that figure.

"These unfunded entitlements would drain resources from important programs benefiting our military, such as continued improvements in pay, quality of life, readiness and other pressing requirements," Rumsfeld said.

At issue is a plan approved by the Senate in May to allow inactive members of the National Guard and reserves to be covered under TRICARE, the health-care program offered to active-duty soldiers. National Guard members and reservists now are covered by the program while on active duty.

"It's only a matter of fairness," Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said yesterday. "As we speak, members of the Guard and reserves are still on active duty. They're serving their country. And I believe that as they come home, having sacrificed so much, at least we ought to give them the opportunity to pay for their own health insurance under TRICARE."

Daschle said earlier estimates by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office put the cost of the TRICARE extension at $300 million.

"I can't imagine where (Rumsfeld) would have gotten the figure that this would cost billions of dollars," he said.