TACOMA — Two of Miranda Fort's three children have different developmental disabilities that affect the way they relate to the world.
To help them, doctors recommended both try behavioral therapy that would teach them social and coping skills.
Yet that treatment, known as applied behavioral analysis, is covered for only one of the two children under the Navy family's Tricare health insurance. The other daughter, Josie, can't get the therapy because she has not been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, the condition for which Tricare offers the treatment.
"We wait until all children that need the therapy have access to it," said Fort, of Silverdale.
Her family is working to make that goal happen as fast as possible by getting behind a proposal from U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., that would compel the insurance agency to expand its offerings for behavioral therapy. The Forts joined Murray on Tuesday at a Seattle press conference to promote the effort.
Murray has submitted an amendment to the annual defense budget that would force the change, costing about $60 million a year.
"That's a drop in the bucket" for the Pentagon's $527 billion spending plan," the senator argues.
Her proposal is moving forward at a moment when the Defense Department is trying to stay on top of a rapidly changing budget picture. It stands to lose about $50 billion next year if Congress fails to stop the forced federal spending cuts known as sequestration.
Against that backdrop, the White House last week urged Congress to raise certain Tricare fees for military retirees and to rein in the system's costs over the next five years. Health care spending last year cost the Pentagon more than $50 billion.
Yet Murray is gathering considerable support for the benefits expansion from families who say it's an important incentive to retain capable service members.
"When we recruit people, we recruit individuals, but we retain families," said retired Army Col. Dave Slotwinski, president of the Military Officers Association of America's Washington state chapter. The organization is backing Murray's proposal.
In recent years, Murray has used the annual defense spending bill to advance reforms that usually focus on the health of troops and their families.
In 2010 and 2012, she put forward successful amendments to the defense spending bill that expanded military mental health resources. In 2011, the final defense spending bill carried a Murray proposal that nudged the Pentagon to use more biofuels.
This year, she's working on other amendments to the defense bill that would allow sex assault victims advocates to appear before military courts and require the Defense Department to conduct a study on the advancement of women in the ranks.
The Senate last week debated the overall spending bill, but left for a holiday recess without passing it.
Murray said her colleagues should pass the Tricare reforms because deployed military service members deserve to know their families are being taken care of while they're overseas.
"Denying these kids this kind of care is absolutely unacceptable," she said.
Miranda Fort has a busy house when her husband, Petty Officer 1st Class Quinten Fort, deploys on Puget Sound-based submarines. Her house is full with daughters Hailey, 7, and Josie, 5, as well as son Teagan, 3.
Teagan has about 18 hours of therapy each week for his autism. It works, Miranda says. For example, he used to have trouble in the grocery store when sprinklers turned on in the produce section. The sound startled him, and the family had to leave the store.
With therapy, Teagan has learned to cope with the sprinklers by cupping his ears. His mom has seen other positive changes, too.
Josie has a different condition in which her brain tissue stretches down into her spinal cord. It makes her impulsive, and she struggles with her memory.
"Daily tasks become impossible," Miranda Fort said.
Josie gets about one hour of therapy a week. Doing more would require the family to pay out-of-pocket expenses they can't afford on an enlisted sailor's salary.
Mom wants behavioral therapy for Josie, in accordance with her doctor's recommendation.
"They could help her create a system" to live with her disability, Miranda Fort said.