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Veterans battle domestic foe: Health care funding

They have always been our frontline of defense against threats to the nation. They have crossed oceans, left families and braved gunfire to protect their homeland. Now, America's veterans are fighting a war of their own: the battle for health care.

Veterans' groups are united in their disapproval of provisions made for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for 2006. In the proposed budget, VA funding would increase about 4 percent, from $67.5 billion to $71.3 billion, which is simply not enough in the minds of most veterans.

In addition, a $250 user fee would be imposed on certain veterans whose disabilities do not come as a result of their military service. Co-payments on prescription drugs would also rise from $7 to $15.

Other changes are called for which have spawned even more frustration from veterans, such as excluding some veterans from care and requesting yearly statements of net worth from veterans.

The budget has passed the House of Representatives, and is headed to the Senate. Now, America's vets are fighting harder than ever before to thwart these changes to their care and force the government to continue a level of care that they feel they were promised.

Promises, price tags

It's easy to understand why the government may be asking veterans for a little help in funding the VA. It is the fourth highest-funded program in the nation, its $71.3 billion price tag is more than the Departments of Energy, Interior, and Homeland Security budgets combined.

One of the problems, said Bob Labadie, Director of the Ohio Governor's Office of Veteran's Affairs, is a substantial growth in the VA system, without the funding to back it all up.

"What happens is, they pass a law creating a benefit or entitlement, and everybody high-fives and hugs, and veterans dance in the street, and then the money to pay for all those neat benefits and entitlements becomes a separate legislative action as part of the budget process," Labadie said.

"What we've run into in the past several years, unless they mandate funding then the funding becomes subject to the debate, and passing and the appropriations process."

As a result, the government has had to readjust its priorities, and create several different levels of veteran assistance. The practical upshot is that veterans who have service-connected disabilities take first place in line, which is, in some ways, closer to the original intent of the problem.

"It's kind of based on why the whole VA started back in the 1800s, and that was to take care of catastrophically injured veterans, people with a leg blown off, things like that," Labadie said. "Over the years, that's been extended to surviving families of veterans, it's been extended to veterans who weren't hurt while serving the country."

Lower on the new priority list are veterans who have their own health care, but still would like to take advantage of VA services, who may be denied treatment in favor of vets with service-connected disabilities.

"That's created a real problem for the veterans, who were told when they raised their hand to join the military that they would be taken care of for life," Labadie said. "That's the first big lie the veterans have been told, that's the way they see it."

Stephen Saunders certainly feels that way, saying that no distinction should be drawn between veterans hurt during a war, and those who have encountered hardship in later life.

"All of us have paid the price, to one degree or another, for the cause of freedom," Saunders said. "This is entitlement, not welfare."

Making good

U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) bristles at the idea that too many entitlements and benefits have been extended to veterans. He said that rather than cutting benefits, provisions need to be made to make good on assurances that veterans have already been given.

"For me, it's not acceptable to just say 'The money's not there,' because the money's there for everything else," Strickland said. "Our budget reflects our values, the budget of this country reflects what the political leadership thinks is most important.

"The fact is that the current political leadership in this country does not put the needs of veterans very high on the list. It's as simple as that. The problem is not that we're promising too much, the problem is that we're not keeping the promises we made."

Drenched in red ink

As the battle for 2006 is waged, the fiscal stability of some VA hospitals right now is already being called into question.

"VA facilities in every region of the country have exhausted reserve funds to meet critical needs," said DAV National Commander James E. Sursley said in a written statement.

"Many have stopped hiring doctors and nurses because of shortfalls, while still others have cut back or even eliminated medical services. Health care for millions of today's and tomorrow's veterans is in limbo because Congress and the Administration have continually failed to adequately fund the VA."

Labadie said that not only has staff been scaled back, but, in some cases, VA facilities.

"They are downsizing. The VA is moving away from big, historic 1,000-bed hospitals and so on, because they can't afford the infrastructure," Labadie said. "They're starting to treat the veterans by partnering with civilian or commercial medical and nursing facilities."

An amendment to add $2 billion to the supplemental appropriation bill in order to cover shortfall of veteran's services was put forth this year. The funds would have been designated as "emergency spending."

The amendment failed to pass, with just one Republican, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, and all Democrats voting in favor of the bill, along with the Senate's lone independent.

Sursley said he was "bitterly disappointed" by the failure of the amendment, which he said was "urgently needed to stem the flow of red ink that threatens health care for today's veterans."

"Less than halfway through the current fiscal year, Veterans Affairs medical facilities across the country have already run out of money and face huge deficits, an emergency situation if there ever was one," Sursely said.

Tomorrow's veterans

The veterans aren't just interested in their own well-being, Saunders said, but also the new combat veterans that are being created every day.

"This is not just for us," Saunders said. "We've got a war going on two fronts, Iraq and Afghanistan, and we've got over 10,000 of our troops wounded. When they come out of the military there's going to be a very high demand on the VA system."

Saunders said that experts estimate that anywhere from 17 to 30 percent of troops will return home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which will put a lot of additional strain on the VA's psychiatric care.

Some of today's veterans have already begun to feel the strain of reduced care, and many feel that if changes aren't made now, our next generation's influx of veterans will take the brunt of budget cuts.

A hollow entitlement

Though the picture may be bleak, some people still hold out hope for the VA system, and have faith that the veterans' efforts will not be wasted.

Labadie said he believes that thanks to the grassroots effort of the veterans, that the $250 user fee and the co-pay doubling will be done away with, and $400 million will be added into infrastructure, in accordance with an amendment introduced at the appropriations level.

But, Labadie stresses, the larger problem will not be resolved until every promise made to veterans comes equipped with a plan for funding it.

"What they're after is fully-funding veterans' programs, and I don't think anybody is going to argue with that, that's really what needs to happen," Labadie said. "But as long as they continue to pass laws offering entitlements but don't say in that law who the bill-payer will be for it, then it becomes a sound bite, a hollow entitlement."

Rep. Strickland said he believes that those who seek to reduce benefits for veterans are now playing hardball. He cites the removal of Republican Chris Smith as Chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, of which he had been a member of for 24 years.

Strickland said that Smith had worked with his party to stave off the additional charges for veterans.

"I think they are serious this time about cutting VA funding," Strickland said. "The budget that passed the House of Representatives was a very bad budget for VA health care. It will result in hundreds of thousands of veterans being excluded from VA health care, and impose addition financial hardship on veterans."

Only the upcoming Senate vote will prove Strickland or Labadie right. Until then, veterans will continue their struggle, trading their guns for pens, their cries of battle for cries for change. They will continue to do as they have been trained: they will fight.