March 3, 2006

Commentary:

Veterans divided are easily conquered on VA health care

By Thomas L. Bock

Generations of Pvt. Ryans have laid their lives on the line for America. They stormed the beaches on D-Day. They marched on frostbitten feet across war-torn Korea. They waded through swamp water in the Mekong Delta, rescued refugees from rooftops, intercepted missiles, flew reconnaissance missions, swabbed decks and removed tyrants from power.

They may have earned a place in the Veterans Day parade, but far too many are denied access to VA medical care.

The decision to lock VA’s doors to all but those with service-connected disabilities or economic hardship is not what America wanted or expected. It’s not what veterans deserve.

In 1996, Congress wisely reopened VA medical facilities to all veterans. Upon enrollment, they were placed into priority groups. There used to be seven. Now there are eight. Group 1 receives the highest priority of care, Group 8 the lowest. In January 2003, the VA secretary suspended new enrollment of Priority Group 8 veterans, effectively capping the system, leaving out in the cold anyone in that category who came looking for a VA doctor after that deadline.

At a press conference Friday in Indianapolis, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Steve Buyer, R-Ind., was clear about one thing: the Group 8 suspension is not going to be lifted anytime soon, probably ever. Because VA health care has not been properly funded to meet the expectations of the 1996 law, veterans who fought proudly for America are denied the thanks of a nation that believes they earned the benefit of VA access.

Who are these Priority Group 8 veterans?

They come from all walks of life. They may or may not have seen combat. They might make less than $30,000 a year. They might have 10 or more prescriptions a month. VA defines them, not so simply, as “Veterans who agree to pay specific copayments with income and/or net worth above the VA Means Test threshold and the Housing and Urban Development’s geographic index.” These veterans are further divided into two smaller fractions: non-compensable, 0-percent service-connected disabled veterans and non-service-connected veterans. Through such definitional haze, veterans are divided and conquered, one priority group at a time, for the sake of not having to pay for them.

Title 38, U.S. Code, says veterans in Groups 1 through 6 are “entitled” to VA health care. All other veterans are “eligible” within existing appropriations. That’s a big loophole, written into the 1996 law, just in case caring for veterans became too expensive. Group 7 veterans, because of that loophole, are susceptible to the same fate as Group 8s. No phrase in government is more subjective than “within existing appropriations.” Honorable military service, the only meaningful definition of the word “veteran,” is no longer reason enough to let a former servicemember visit a VA doctor.

Chairman Buyer’s estimated 2007 VA budget adds $1.9 billion to President Bush’s Office of Management and Budget request, which was proposed in early February, loaded with unattainable collection figures, dubious “management efficiencies” and other stretches of the budgetary imagination. Neither request reflects the priorities or purpose of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Furthermore, neither request meets the needs of a VA healthcare system facing the fast-rising medical inflation and certain demand growth from an ongoing war.

Democrats on the committee have submitted their own projections, calling for a $4.5 billion increase over the president’s request. Clearly, there is nothing resembling consensus on the Veterans Affairs Committee, once considered the most nonpartisan committee on Capitol Hill.

Last year, Chairman Buyer’s estimates were clearly out of sync with the entire veterans’ community. This time last year, The American Legion and other leading organizations warned Buyer and his colleagues that they were not adequately projecting the budget needs for VA health care. Not surprisingly, before the end of the fiscal 2005, VA required $1.5 billion in emergency spending. President Bush soon adjusted his 2006 budget request to up it by $1.6 billion due to what were described as VA “miscalculations.”

These miscalculations resulted in the shifting of money within VA accounts - typically away from long-awaited capital improvements - to keep the system in operation. VA’s budget request had been based on outdated information that completely misfired on the cost of treating returning combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The American Legion trusts Congress will produce a budget resolution for fiscal 2007 that truly pays for the VA healthcare system that every eligible Pvt. Ryan - past, present, and future - has earned.

Tom Bock is national commander of the 2.7 million-member American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans organization. 

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