ONE WOMAN HAS HAD seven operations for cancer, another lost a kidney and needs dialysis, another had breast cancer, and another had a heart attack in the middle of her divorce trial. In their 40s, 50s and 60s, these women can't get insured themselves. They are too old or too ill-or they are too poor-to pay the premiums.
These are women who spent their career years married to military officers, women whose medical needs once were completely covered by military health benefits. Now they are divorced, ineligible for military health care, and for some of them their brightest prospect for decent medical care is to get on welfare.
Bills now are pending in Congress that would extend military health benefits to divorced spouses who were married at least 20 years to people on acitve duty 20 years. The house bill has the unlikely cosponsorship of John Burton, a liberal Democrat from California, and G. William Whitehurst, a conservative Republican from the Norfolk-Virginia Beach District who is on the Armed Services Commitee. George McGovern introduced the same bill in the Senate last month.
"the medical benefits are of paramount importance," says Gwen Spears, Whitehurst's staff assistant for military liaison affairs. "Without them, some of these women are virtually uninsurable because of previous health problems that manifested themselves during their husbands' careers, that were treated at military facilities. I'm talking about things like cancer, heart disease, kidney dissease. Once they're divorced, they're no longer entitled to any benefits and they find that to get any insurance, the companies have riders attached that eliminate the problem they're previously had as something for which the companies will not be responsible.
"as a result of the problem, we've heard from ladies throughout the country saying they're not getting the medical care that they desperately need, such as follow-up care for surgery. Many have gone on welfare or have had to go to welfare hospitals. If the husband remarries, his new wife becomes automatically entitled to health care benefits even if he's retired, while she's given usually nothing to that 20-year career."
In a letter soliciting support-which he and Burton have gotten from about 40 colleagues-Whitehurst wrote: "Having moved frequently during the service member's career, the spouse had scant opportunity to develop her own economic independence, and after divorce is frequentlu left with no means of obtaining health insurance at a reasonable cost. If the spouse also had a history of medical problems, it is virtually impossible for her to obtain insurance from a private carrier. We feel strongly this places the spouse in a position of being totally abandoned after having contributed to our national defense through years of marriage to a career members of the armed forces."
"if she wasn't willing to put up with the hardships of a Navy or Army career, of the overseas travel, many of these men would be forced to get out," says Spears. "She's contributed to the national defence by [caring for] the family so the husband doesn't have to take emergency leave or turn in his papers. If you don't have that kind of support from families, you're not going to have a very viable fighting force."
These are women who traveled extensively on behalf of their husbands' careers of their own so that they could be insured through their own employment. "We were typical Army," siad one ex-wife. "We made quite a few moves and quite a few changes. You never put roots down anywhere long enough."
"our purposes is to cover the person who has had the full 20 years," says Spears. "We're not talking about the women who was 35 and married her husband and five years later he retires. That wife did not have a military career."
Opposition to the extension of health benefits surfaced during hearings on a similar bill last year from people opposed to more federal spending and people who feel the courts should determine what former spouses receive, says Spears, "but a court could not order continued health care in a military hospital."
Opposition also came from the Department of Defense, which estimated roughly that it would cost $45 million a year to provide care for 150,000 divorced spouses. "It is the view of the Department of Defense," wrote its general counsel, "that extension of medical care benefits to former spouses is neither a valid nor earned entitlement from service to the department and that such an extension would be a precedent unsatisfactory to the American taxpayer.
Sponsors of the bill question the $45 million figures as being high. But even if it is correct, considers how it compares to other defense department expenditures: one F14 Navy fighters costs $25 million; one Nimitz class aircraft carrier, $2 billion; one army battlefield tank, $1.4 million, and the MX ICBM missile system President Carter currently is considering costs between $20 billion and $40 billion for 200 missiles and their launching systems. These expenditures are justified by Congress on the ground of national security.
Women who would be covered by the Burton-Whitehurst and McGovern bills entered into marriage 20 years ago or more and the deal they cut was that they would take care of the children and home while their husbands protected our national security. In those days, marriage was for keeps and the women expected to share the accomplishments of their husbands' career and to join him in retirement.These wives had, after all, devoted their working lives towards making his career possible.
In the last 10 years, more and more of these women have found their husbands are reneging. Women who mortgaged their working lives to help their husbands' careers are being abandoned. That generation of women had no way of foreseeing what would happen; never before has America divorced on such a scale. But their daughters now know what can happen and their daughters may be far less willing to abandon their own careers and to volunteer their working lives for the national security interests if they are going to end up on welfare and Medicaid.
Extending health benefits to divorced spouses won't solve all of the financial problems in military divorces, but it would help. And it would signal the military spouse that Congress values her role and considers long-term spousal support to the military employe a genuine asset to our national security.
This is not some phantom airplane we're talking about that is supposed to protect us against a perceived threat, one that might never get off the ground, that will be obsolete it is built. This is leglislation and money to satisfy a documented human need, a need that both conservative and liberal members of Congress believe is clearly linked to the well-being of military personnel. We hear a lot of talk from the Hill at budget time in which on the grounds of national security.
Here is one such expenditure that can legitimately he defended on those grounds. Here, for once, is an occasion in which members of Cogress actually ought to put our money where their mouths are.