When I speak about who our Association serves, I say that we work to improve the lives of active duty, National Guard and Reserve, retired, and surviving families of members of all seven Uniformed Services. Then I ask the trivia question: “What are the seven Uniformed Services?” In most cases, people easily name the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard, but they’re often stumped on the other two: the Commissioned Corps of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Public Health Service (PHS).
Members of all seven Uniformed Services take the same oath to support our Nation, are paid using the same pay tables, go where our leaders send them, earn the same retirement benefits, and receive the same TRICARE health care coverage. But this equality in benefits for their service that is granted by law is now threatened by the very Congress we ask to protect us.
A little background. Many military families with an autistic child, as well as some with other disabilities, have seen improvement when the child has access to Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy. Because TRICARE has provided ABA therapy under the ECHO Program, which is open to active duty families only and has an annual cap on costs, many military families have asked Congress to make it a covered TRICARE benefit to remove the cap and be available to retirees as well. They’ve encountered resistance for several reasons, most notably the cost.
The House’s version
In May, the House of Representatives added a provision to its version of the Fiscal Year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would make ABA therapy a TRICARE benefit for patients with an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis. Normally, when a benefit is added to TRICARE, it applies to everyone that qualifies medically. In this case, however, the House decided it was acceptable to specifically exclude all families of three Uniformed Services: the Coast Guard, NOAA, and PHS—a first.
The Senate’s version
On December 4, the Senate approved its version of the NDAA, which also contains a provision adding ABA therapy as a TRICARE benefit. At the request of our Association and others, the Senate provision opens up the therapy to anyone whose doctor believes would be helped. In response to our concerns about the House excluding three of the seven Uniformed Services from the benefit, the Senate included coverage for all active duty Coast Guard, NOAA, and PHS family members. But, it still specifically excludes retiree families of those Service branches.
I don’t want to diminish the importance of this new TRICARE benefit. I’m glad Members of Congress have recognized the burden military families with a child needing ABA therapy face in finding and paying for the treatment. However, our Association is deeply concerned about the precedent this action by both Houses of Congress sets—and thinks that every military family should be as well.
Members of Congress have a chance to fix this inequity as they meet to create the final version of the NDAA. They must ensure eligibility for TRICARE benefits is determined by the medical needs of the patient, not the type of uniform their service member wears or wore.
How do you feel about these exclusions in the proposed NDAA?