Wednesday, March 26, 2003

A question of support

Budget cut would hurt veterans


While war wages halfway around the world, some of our lawmakers in Washington are ready to shortchange the agencies that are supposed to provide health care for our troops once they come home.

Tucked into a House budget bill that would deliver $726 billion in tax cuts to Americans are measures that also would trim veterans' health care and benefits by nearly $25 billion over 10 years.

Late last week, the House of Representatives voted 215-212 on a budget that would take $844 million next year and $9.7 billion over 10 years from veterans' medical care. It also would chop $15 billion from veterans' disability and other programs, including $204 million from Impact Aid, which supports education for service members' children.

The Senate weighed in Tuesday, voting to cut President Bush's $726 billion tax-cut plan by about half. Now the bill is headed for a House-Senate compromise, and the Department of Veterans Affairs might not be cut as deeply.

Low access to health care

The cuts as first proposed would shave just 4 percent off next year's VA health-care funding. Still, veterans groups are incensed - and with good reason.

Their members are waiting too long to see doctors and specialists at veterans' facilities.

According to Amvets, more than 200,000 veterans seeking health care in January waited more than six months. VA officials say they're working on improving the wait time. The national goal for a doctor's visit is a 30-day wait.

Waits at Ohio's VA hospital and clinics that serve the Tristate averaged 36 days last year, spokeswoman Suzanne Tate said.

Hospitalized veterans also are vying for too few doctors and nurses. And the VA system has started drastically rationing its health care, deciding some veterans get care while others don't.

Late last year, when Congress budget jams delayed funding for the VA, the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs tried triage. He created a new way of prioritizing health-care service, giving top priority to patients with military service-related injuries or illnesses and patients in poverty. Thousands of others - mostly newly enrolled vets - were denied care.

It was meant as a temporary measure, but veterans groups warn that the proposed budget cuts could make the system permanent.

Health for troops

Still unclear is how budget cuts will affect post-war health benefits for troops returning from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

A 1998 law compels the VA to provide free medical care to those newly returned from a combat zone, whether or not they have a military service-related disability, for up to two years.

After that, only those with medical problems related to military service qualify for lifelong medical benefits.

Veterans groups wonder how a system that can't afford to treat the veterans it already serves will be able to handle new ones, especially if some of those new patients may be exposed to chemical or biological weapons in this war.

More than 6.5 million veterans are enrolled in the VA health system, but the VA is budgeted to provide care for only 4.8 million patients in 2004.

Will support for our troops evaporate once war ends?

Thomas H. Corey, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, recalled the skepticism and resistance from the VA and the Department of Defense after soldiers reported illnesses from the Gulf War.

"If there is not enough money to assist those injured and made ill because of this deployment ... then all of our declarations of support will indeed be hollow," he said.

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