Senators blast Bush on VA care
Published: Friday, January 31, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 30, 2003 at 10:09 p.m.
WASHINGTON - A group of 29 senators blasted the Bush administration Thursday for blocking an estimated 164,000 veterans from receiving health care this year from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Led by Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, the protesters sent a letter to President Bush arguing the move doesn't address the causes of massive backlogs at VA hospitals and clinics. The decision "undermines the commitment the United States has made to its veterans," the letter says.
"VA health care must be high on the list of the nation's priorities - fully funded and supported not only in the future, but right now," said the letter signed by 28 Democrats and an independent.
Anthony Principi, secretary of the Department of Veterans' Affairs, halted enrollment of certain veterans beginning Jan. 17 and continuing at least through 2003. The decision prevents veterans with higher incomes and no service-connected disability, called Priority Group 8 veterans, from enrolling. These veterans have incomes above a VA threshold of $24,644 for a single veteran and $29,576 with one dependent and above an index established by the Department of Housing and Urban Development that varies from place to place.
The HUD limit for a two-person family is $30,800 in Gainesville, based on 2002 HUD figures due for revision next month.
Veterans in that category have flooded the VA system in recent years, largely to take advantage of a generous prescription drug benefit. The senators argued to Bush that lack of a Medicare prescription drug benefit has driven higher-income retirees to VA care, which suffers from chronic underfunding. They suggested allowing the VA to fill veterans' prescriptions even if they are written by outside doctors, which the VA doesn't want to do.
The protest to Bush came a day after Republicans on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee also complained of under funding. They suggested a $1.9 billion increase for VA health care that Bush is expected to propose for 2004 will not be enough.
Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican on the committee, said he is disappointed in the Priority Group 8 decision especially for his state.
"This is especially important to the veterans of Florida," he said.
Excluding Priority Group 8 veterans is a response to budget shortfalls and plays into a larger debate about how VA gets its money.
Almost all of the critics who signed the letter, including both of Louisiana's senators and Minority Leader Tom Daschle, also support legislation that would dedicate funding to VA health care with automatic annual increases. The legislation would use formulas to keep funding equal to demand. It would remove Congress and the fickle appropriations process from the picture.
Graham, a potential presidential contender, and Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who also signed the letter, have not supported dedicated funding legislation.
Joe Violante, legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, faulted the senators for avoiding the issue of dedicated funding and laying all the blame on the president. "I think there's enough blame for both the administration and Congress to share for this disaster," he said.
Congress in 1996 opened VA health care to all veterans. Enrollment has skyrocketed but funding has not. Principi said in a recent interview that the issue of dedicated funding raises deep questions about the role of the VA.
"That's a very important policy question as to who does the government want us to care for," he said when asked if he supports dedicated funding. "If you served two years in uniform and you don't serve in combat, you don't have military disabilities and you have a very sizable income, should we be providing lifetime health care to that person, or should we be focused more on the military disabled and those who cannot afford it?"
Principi said he would try to get as much money as possible but made clear the VA should focus on the military-disabled and the poor.
Violante said Principi's comments reveal an underlying administration philosophy and that the White House wants to limit who is eligible for VA care and step back from the decision Congress and President Clinton made to open it to all veterans, he said.
Still, Violante and other veteran leaders said they don't blame Principi for this decision because the department is nearly $2 billion short this year.
Rick Weidman, legislative director for Vietnam Veterans of America, said the situation shows that VA is unprepared for a war with Iraq.
"We're going to take casualties," Weidman said. "VA can't take care of who they have now. What are they going to do with this influx?"
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