With less than a month before orders expire for National Guard troops responding to the coronavirus pandemic, advocates are pushing lawmakers to ensure their health care needs are covered even after the missions are over.
On Tuesday, officials from the National Guard Association of the United States pressed Congress to act quickly on pending legislation that would provide Guardsmen and their families with six months of Tricare coverage after they leave federal Title 32 active duty.
“These soldiers and airmen are on the front lines of our nation's worst public health crisis in more than a century,” said retired Brig. Gen. J. Roy Robinson, president of NGAUS, in a statement. “It would be unconscionable to send them home to their families without medical coverage.”
Current plans call for Guard missions to end after 89 days, one day short of minimums needed to qualify for certain retirement and education benefits.
Under current law, guardsmen on federal orders for more than 30 days have access to the military’s Tricare medical system while on duty. Their families are also covered while their missions are active.
In addition, those troops and dependents receive transitional medical care for six months after an overseas assignments, to help ensure that any post-deployment health issues are handled.
But under current law, domestic missions do not enjoy the same six-month extension.
"Active-component personnel coming off the same front lines have that coverage, and rightly so," Robinson said. "All we are asking is that we treat Guardsmen the same way."
Last week, Reps. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., and Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., introduced the Support our National Guard Act in the House, which would provide the six-month extended coverage following the coronavirus deployments.
That measure echoes legislation introduced two weeks ago by Sens. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., that would also extend hazardous duty pay to guardsmen performing the pandemic missions.
VA officials say they're working with colleges and Congress to watch for potential problems when veterans return to classes next year.
About 46,000 Guardsmen are deployed to states across the country to help local authorities with testing and logistics needs related to the outbreak. Nearly 100,000 Americans have died from complications related to the fast-spreading virus in the last three months.
The expected end of the guard missions next month has been a point of controversy in recent weeks, because the timing will leave most Guardsmen one day short of the minimum needed to qualify for certain military retirement and veteran education benefits.
White House officials have not said publicly why they chose the June 24 end date, or whether they plan to extend the missions in coming days.