Study: Ohio veterans would be affected by Bush proposals

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 21, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Proposed Bush administration changes to veterans' benefits would jeopardize health care to an estimated 45,000 Ohio veterans, according to a study released Tuesday by an Ohio congressman.

Bush's budget for 2004, which starts Oct. 1, had proposed cutting off enrollment for veterans who make more than about $24,000. Veterans above the income threshold who already are enrolled would be charged a $250 annual fee.

The study was prepared for Rep. Ted Strickland, a Democrat from Lucasville, Ohio, who is on the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

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Strickland projected that about 4,000 of the estimated 173,000 veterans nationwide who would be excluded from care live in Ohio.

The additional costs would squeeze about 41,000 Ohio veterans out of the system, including about 14,000 who currently are receiving medical care, according to the study by the House Committee on Government Reform.

House GOP leaders accused Democrats on Tuesday of distorting the facts because the president's proposals have not been included in the already-passed budget document, which lays out spending authority, and are unlikely to pass separately. The House and Senate veterans affairs committees have rejected the proposals.

''It's a sad day when the people that this country owes so much to are misled,'' said Rep. Deborah Pryce, a Republican from Upper Arlington, Ohio.

Congress has passed a budget plan that increases funding for veterans' medical care to about $30 billion, which is $1.8 billion more than Bush proposed for 2004.

''This is a great budget for American veterans,'' said Veterans Affairs Chairman Chris Smith, R-N.J.

Still, the plan is only a guide. Details about the Bush proposals to increase fees and limit access have yet to be worked out.

This year, veterans groups have made it their priority to defeat these proposals and secure added funding for veterans' benefits. Their efforts were helped by the Iraq war.

''What we are talking about here is the ability, if we choose to do so, to serve all the veterans that would be legally entitled to our service without imposing additional co-payments or without imposing an enrollment fee,'' Strickland said.

Another Bush proposal would increase co-payments for higher-income patients from $15 to $20 for outpatient primary care and from $7 to $15 for prescription drugs.

These increased fees are expected to cost veterans an additional $97 a year. The cost could be higher depending on how many prescriptions they use. Ohio veterans who make more than $24,000 and stay in the program would pay a combined $11.7 million more a year, the study said.

''When the men and women went into service in the military, they were promised certain things. And now they are saying, 'If you want what we have promised you, you have got to pay for it,''' said J.P. Brown, Ohio commander for AMVETS, a veterans advocacy group.

Brown, who served for two years in Vietnam in the 1960s, said the income cutoff and increased fees are not the answer to funding problems.

''It will cut off a lot of people who are barely making it as it is and would throw them into a situation where they won't have any health care,'' he said.