Help us Kathleen Sebelius, we’re stuck in the military

John Kerry famously opined that if you make don’t make smart choices and get an education, you ‘get stuck in Iraq’.  A group of Minnesota soldiers famously responded.  Now, members of the Guard and Reserves are starting to realize they may be stuck in the military for a much different reason: Obamacare.

Back in 2005, the Pentagon extended health insurance to Guard and Reserve soldiers who did not have any other coverage available, called Tricare Reserve Select.  The premiums are excellent ($195 per month for family coverage, $51 for individuals) and the deductibles are reasonable.  These low rates are made possible by two factors; first, the large size of the pool of insured, currently north of 200k, and second, the fact that Guard and Reserve members are by definition healthier on average than the general population.  Not only must military members maintain a healthy weight and stay physically fit, but people with serious and chronic illnesses are simply not allowed to join the military.

But the flipside of this great benefit to being in the Guard and Reserve, affordable insurance, is that soldiers who are nearing the end of their enlistment are now facing the huge uncertainty of leaving that coverage for the chaos of Obamacare.  I know dozens of soldiers who say they can’t afford to retire or get out of the military.  And on the front end, military recruiters are now touting Tricare as a major reason to join the Guard.

This weekend I spoke with two soldiers who had planned to get out of the Guard in the next several months as their enlistments end.  One of the soldiers, who is self employed, has been looking for an insurance plan to replace the Tricare he would lose by getting out.  The least expensive plan he could find on MNSure had a $117 monthly premium with a $4,200 yearly deductible.  He’s a healthy young man who rarely goes to the doctor, but that $4,200 scares the crap out of him.  Instead of having to pay a penalty tax to the IRS for not having health insurance, he decided the cheaper option is to re-enlist for another 3 years so he can keep Tricare and wait out Obamacare.

The other soldier works for a small company outside of Rochester that recently told their employees they will be dropping health coverage because of Obamacare.  Paying the fine is simply the lessor of two evils for the company.  So this soldier, who has been deployed three times since 2004 and was looking forward to being done with the military, faces the choice of trying to navigate MNSure and the certainty of much higher premiums for his family, or staying in the Guard so he has access to cheap insurance when his company’s health coverage is cancelled. 

The worst part of all of this, is the sneaking suspicion most of us have that with all of the budget cuts coming down the pipeline, Tricare for Guard and Reserve soldiers seems like an easy target for the bean counters.  It doesn’t cost the Pentagon a lot of money in the overall picture, but it would be an easy place to cut, as most civilians don’t know the program exists.  The Pentagon has already began cutting health care benefits for full time Guard and Reserve soldiers, so us weekend warriors can’t be far behind.

Military leaders and members of Congress, not to mention the president, explicitly promised the military and veterans that Obamacare would not affect their health care benefits.  I guess that promise was as true as ‘if you like your plan you can keep your plan.’

Comments welcome at Foreign and Domestic, all opinions above are my own.