High court ends retirees’ quest for free care

By Tom Philpott

A seven-year court challenge by elderly military retirees, who say the government reneged on promises of free lifetime health care, came to an end June 2 when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear their appeal.
In refusing to accept the case for review, the justices let stand a 2002 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington D.C. that recruiter promises of free lifetime care were not backed by statute and therefore not binding contracts on the government.
Retired Air Force Col. George “Bud” Day, lawyer for the retirees, said he was “extremely disappointed” that the high court declined review “at a time when we have young people committed to war in the Middle East and when the honor of the country, in terms of doing what we say we’re going to do, is at stake.”
Day represents Lt. Cols. Robert L. Reinlie and the estate of William O. “Sam” Schism who died in March. Both retirees began their careers during World War II and the Korean War. Had the case gone to trial, Day would have sought class action status to represent 1.5 million retirees who entered service before June 7, 1956. Retirees who joined on or after that date were excluded because they came in under a law that, for the first time, limited on-base medical benefits for retirees to “space available” care. For older retirees, the lawsuit sought up to $10,000 apiece in reimbursement for Medicare Part B premiums paid since age 65.
While the lawsuit and Day, a Medal of Honor recipient for heroism leading fellow prisoners of war in Vietnam, attracted national attention, Medicare-eligible retirees won two extraordinary legislative victories. In 2002 Congress enacted TRICARE for Life and the TRICARE Senior Pharmacy program. It was the biggest expansion in government-funded health benefits in decades. This left many retirees satisfied that the promise of lifetime health care had been restored.
Day and his clients disagreed.
While older beneficiaries could now use TFL and drop costly Medicare supplements, Day argued that older retirees still should not have to pay Medicare Part B premiums and should be reimbursed for past premiums. “Paying a hundred bucks a month is not free,” he said.
Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: