A group of 141 House lawmakers is pressing Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to waive TRICARE copays for contraceptive purchases and services, calling it a matter of fairness for military members and retirees.

In a letter released Thursday, the lawmakers — led by members of the Democratic Women’s Caucus — noted that such services are covered by private insurance plans but not military health care.

“As a result, military families have fewer rights than those they serve to protect,” the group wrote. “For example, a dependent of an active-duty servicemember … is subject to copays for contraception which, depending on the method, may involve paying out-of-pocket for counseling, the contraceptive method, and insertion and removal.”

The move follows an attempt by lawmakers to change the rules regarding contraceptive access and copays in the annual defense authorization bill last year. The idea was included in early versions of the legislation, but conservative lawmakers successfully lobbied to get the provisions removed from the final draft approved in December.

Now advocates are pushing for a different approach, urging Austin to declare the contraceptive services as “preventative medical care.” The designation would allow him to waive all applicable TRICARE copays.

Currently, individuals who get approval from a TRICARE-authorized provider do not face the fees, but individuals who use other physicians or buy the contraceptives through retail still face the extra costs.

But making the change could bring with it political consequences, as numerous Republicans lawmakers have repeatedly blocked any attempts to expand birth control services in the military, particularly non-prescription emergency contraceptives viewed as akin to abortion by some opponents.

The letter signers (all Democrats) argued that the contraceptive access amounts to “basic health care services” for troops.

“[Providing it] without cost barriers — just as civilians do — is the least we can do for these brave individuals who put their lives on the line in defense of our country and freedoms,” they wrote.

Lawmakers are expected to begin debate again on the annual authorization bill — potentially with the contraceptive language included again — later this spring.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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