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Do Veterans Have A Right To Free Health Care For Life?

By Jeff Schogol

Time and time again, Stars and Stripes hears from readers who say they
were promised free medical care for life when they joined the military.
The topic usually comes up when there is talk of raising Tricare fees
for military retirees.

“I do mind paying more than $460.00 per year,” one reader commented on
such a story in January. “I was promised FREE medical and DENTAL for me
and my family, for life. So to me any increase is a continuation of the
break of a promise that was already broken.”

Clearly, these folks feel betrayed, so The Rumor Doctor set out to see
if there is any truth to this belief that troops and veterans are
entitled to free health care for life.

“The short answer is no,” said Peter Graves, a spokesman for the
assistant defense secretary for health affairs. “Health care benefits
for military members, retirees, and their families are, and have always
been, as provided by law, and the law has never promised free health
care for life.”

The law provides free medical care for servicemembers on active duty
and their families, Graves said in an email.

Congressional Research Service, which provides analysis for Congress,
issued a 2003 report that found veterans were not entitled to free
medical care for life, even though they may have been promised exactly
that by their recruiters.

Since 1956, veterans and their families can be treated at military
medical facilities “subject to the availability of space and facilities
and the capabilities of the medical and dental staff,” the report found.

“They have no right to military health care and the military services
have total discretion in when and under what circumstances retirees and
their dependents will get care in military treatment facilities,” the
report said.

Several veterans have taken their claims to court, alleging that
recruiters promised them free medical care, but one court ruled that
such promises did not constitute a contract, the report said.

Moreover, since recruiters do not have the authority to make such
promises, there is no way to enforce them, the U.S. Court of Appeals for
the Federal Circuit ruled in 2002. The Supreme Court later refused to
hear the case, ending the matter.

“The courts, and other analysts, have noted that allowing these claims
to create such an obligation would thwart the Constitutional role of
Congress (i.e., prevent the Congress from determining the compensation
and benefits of the armed forces) and create a situation wherein
military personnel/retirees (and potentially al other federal employees)
could create or expand their own benefits with popular myth or rumor and
without review,” the CRS report found.

THE RUMOR DOCTOR’S DIAGNOSIS: The rumor of free medical care for life
is false, even though some veterans were promised it by recruiters, who
were in no position to make such a promise. As the CRS report makes
clear, “Unauthorized promises based on mistakes, fraud, etc. do not
constitute a contractual obligation on the part of the
government/taxpayer.”

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