updated 3/25/2005 9:34:59 AM ET 2005-03-25T14:34:59

The more than 400,000 National Guard and Reserve members mobilized since September 2001 for the fight against terrorism will be offered the choice of military health care coverage for as long as eight years after they return to civilian life.

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Only those who remain in the Reserves after they are demobilized will be eligible, said Thomas Hall, the assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs.

Hall said that in discussing the plan with more than 2,000 Guard and Reserve members in the Persian Gulf recently he heard a great deal of enthusiasm for this kind of transitional health insurance.

“It targets the young men and women bearing the brunt today,” Hall said.

Until now, Guard and Reserve members could retain health care coverage under the Defense Department’s Tricare system for no more than six months after they left active duty. Under the new arrangement they could retain coverage for at least one year and as long as eight years, depending on the length of their mobilization and the length of their commitment to remain in the Guard or Reserve.

They would pay monthly premiums ranging from $50 to $150 a month for individual coverage, depending on their rank, and from $100 to $300 a month for family coverage, depending on rank.

William Winkenwerder, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said at a joint news conference with Hall that he has no firm estimate of how much the program will cost the government.

Later, the Pentagon issued a statement saying the cost would be $70 million for the remainder of the current budget year, which ends Sept. 30, and $394 million for the 2006 budget year.

Hall said he expects a majority of eligible Guard and Reserve members to resume coverage under the health care system offered by their civilian employer, rather than take the military coverage.

Winkenwerder said the Pentagon has no firm forecast of how many people will take the benefit. “It’s going to be many thousand to tens of thousands, we would expect, at a minimum,” he said.

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