Military retirees have gotten the attention of Congress with complain that they were promised lifetime healthcare if they stayed in the service at least 20 years but now find many of the military hospitals and clinics that used to provide it gone due to base closings. Where bases still exist—including Fort Lewis, which is home to Madigan Army Hospital—they contend they often encounter delays or are turned away because of budget cuts and space limitations.

“Military retirees dedicated their lives to protecting our interests around the world—they are due a serious legislative response,” says Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Washington.

He and 24 other U.S. senators are trying to remedy the situation with Senate Bill 2003, which would entitle all military retirees and their widows or widowers access to the Federal Employee Health Benefit Plan to which federal non-military retirees have access. That program pays up to 75 percent of insurance premiums.

Since not all military retirees live near military hospitals, Gorton reasons, the bill would enable them to go to local hospitals and have their costs paid for by the government.

He’s also sponsoring a bill that would allow Medicare-eligible military retirees to receive care at military facilities with Medicare paying the Department of Defense for costs of that care. Military retirees younger than 65 could participate by paying a modest but as yet unspecified monthly premium and a $150 annual deductible.

Called Tricare, this program has been field tested at hospitals including Madigan and has been declared a success by supports such as Gorton.

The Defense Department contends that giving retirees and spouses access to the Federal Employee Health Benefit Plan would be too costly—at an estimated $5 billion to $9 billion a year.

Rep. Joe Scarborough, R-Pensacola, who chairs the Civil Service Subcommittee of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, says the cost estimate sounds high. He points out that the Pentagon estimated 80 percent of the eligible retirees would participate in a pilot program but only 4 percent of them did.

The retirees are not seeking a handout, supporters. They also suggest that Pentagon worries over cost are specious, at best—the cost of any such program would be added to, not taken from, the defense budget, they explain.

The Pentagon also is fighting a suit by retirees, mostly World War II and Korean War veterans, demanding that the promise of health care be kept.

Their lawyer—retired Air Force Col. George “Bud” Day, a former Vietnam prisoner of war and Medal of Honor recipient—recently told a Congressional subcommittee that retirees are worried they will not live to see it happen.—Associated Press contributed to this story