In an era when political partisanship has become a blood sport and the members of Congress have become almost completely detached from the U.S. military – except for the funding of spending bills – there is still one member who manages to keep his connections to both institutions. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is now the only senator who sits on both the Senate Armed Services Committee and the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, along with maintaining his status as a JAG [judge advocate general] lawyer in the Air Force Reserve. Considered by many to be one of the last truly bipartisan members of the Senate, he has a unique perspective on the issues of military and veterans’ health care in America. We recently sat down with Graham to get his thoughts on the present and future issues regarding health care for those who serve:
John D. Gresham: As a member of Congress and the armed forces at the same time, what do you feel is America’s debt to its service members and their families and our veterans’ community?
Sen. Lindsey Graham: I think George Washington said it the best: “The day that the country fails to take care of those who have served and fought for our freedom, basically our best days are behind us.” That’s not an exact quote, but from Washington up until now, every major political leader in this country, Republican or Democrat, has one thing in common, and that is the belief the nation as a whole owes a great debt to those who serve and sacrifice. That’s one area where bipartisanship strongly exists — in fulfilling the obligations we have to the men and women in uniform.
You have an unusual status within Congress, being one of a handful of members in either House who’s on both the Armed Services and Veterans Affairs committees. What made you want to gain membership on both of these committees in the Senate, and what value do you feel there is to you and the other members who have that dual membership?
I wanted to serve on both the committees because of the target audience. I’ve been a military officer since I graduated from ROTC at the University of South Carolina. I’m the only member of the Senate who continues to serve in the Guard or Reserves. As I do my Reserve duty, I want to make sure that they know they’ve got an advocate in the Senate. Serving on both of these committees gives me a unique opportunity to understand the needs of our veterans’ community and active-duty components.
What kind of reaction do you get from your fellow committee members on the Senate Armed Services and Veterans Affairs committees to your military service combined with your dual committee membership?
It’s a positive reaction. Let me just say that some of the best members of Congress who support our veterans have never served a day in uniform. It is by no means required to have been a member of the military to serve effectively as a member of Congress. Having said that, my fellow committee members and colleagues understand that having done military service and being involved still with the Guard and the Reserves, they listen to what I say. I don’t try to overdo it. My contribution to the Air Force Reserves is very small, but it does give me a unique perspective.
An example of this was our effort to get TRICARE for the Guard and Reserves, which was an effort that came about from my work with former Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York. When she was in the Senate, we joined forces to make sure the Guard and Reserves would be eligible for TRICARE. I understood the need to expand this program because our Reserve forces are being called to active duty in record numbers. Many of them are unable to deploy because of health care problems. That is an example where, because of my being in the Reserves, I was able to learn about a need, communicate it to my Senate colleagues, and they responded. Now every member of the Guard and the Reserves and their families are eligible for TRICARE. It also helps in recruiting, retention, and improving the overall quality of the force.
Let’s talk a little more about TRICARE and the active-duty military medicine side. What kind of trends, as a member of the armed services, have you seen in the past year or two regarding funding and legislation associated with military medicine in general and the TRICARE system in particular?
Well, I ask this question of all the family groups that come before our committee: How would you rate TRICARE? Their comments are usually pretty high for quality of service, but average or below average when it comes to access. Presently, the biggest challenge to TRICARE is making sure you have enough providers to meet the needs of our service members and their families. A big problem I see with TRICARE is making sure we have a large enough provider network to provide a variety of services. Funding is strong and I think the reforms that we’re looking at in TRICARE will make it more likely that doctors and hospitals will sign up to join the network. Because of reimbursement rates, one of the biggest challenges we face is getting physicians and hospitals into the network. We are going to work to improve that area.