Vets say Dubya ignores their needs

Alfred J. Casey, 82, is a news junkie. Every day he reads newspapers, watches TV and devours magazines. And ever since he read about the president’s proposed budget this month, he’s been stewing.

“I think this administration is cutting money from the veterans, and that will hurt a lot of people in Pittsburgh,” said Casey, who served in the Ardennes in France in World War II. “A lot of veterans are in bad shape health-wise. A lot of people in this country forget that besides those who don’t come back, many come back needing help for the rest of their lives.”

Jim Nicholson, President Bush’s new Veterans Affairs secretary, rejects the idea that the Bush administration has forgotten the nation’s 25 million veterans.

“This budget proposal guarantees that the department will be able to care for those veterans who count on VA the most,” Nicholson said. He said that in an austerity budget Bush is proposing a 2.7 percent increase in spending on discretionary programs for veterans.

But what Nicholson omitted was that Bush’s budget also proposes that veterans pay more for their health care and that he’s seeking less for veterans’ health care than every major veterans’ advocacy group says is essential.

The Bush budget would impose a new $250 health care user fee on what it calls well-to-do veterans who use services provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs, and it also would double prescription drug co-payments to $15. But in many cases, those criteria could include veterans with annual incomes of only $26,000.

The administration’s proposal would boost spending on veterans’ health care by $111 million.

But veterans’ groups say that is only one-fourth of 1 percent more than the fiscal year 2005 budget and that government experts have said the VA needs a 14 percent increase to keep up with its needs.

Advocacy groups (including the Paralyzed Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars and AMVETS) say a realistic budget next year for veterans’ health care should be $31.2 billion _ not $28.1 billion, as the president’s budget proposes.

In testimony before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, Richard Fuller, legislative director for the Paralyzed Veterans of America, said the administration’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2006 will not improve health care for the nation’s veterans.

“It relies on optimistic third-party collections, accounting gimmicks and punitive and totally unrealistic management efficiencies,” he said.

With the government also proposing cuts in Medicaid, if Bush’s budget passes, “many veterans would have nowhere else to turn,” Fuller said.

Rep. Lane Evans, D-Ill., a Vietnam veteran and the senior Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, helped beat back user fees on veterans in the past. He is concerned that the fight against imposing fees on them is growing more difficult. He argues that not only are current veterans not getting sufficient help, but the department also is unready for a wave of new problems faced by those now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. .

Anthony Principi, Veterans Affairs secretary during Bush’s first term, told reporters recently that the nation was simply not spending enough on its veterans. Principi noted that nearly one in five soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan is suffering from mental health problems because of urban warfare’s stresses.

He said the nation has not dealt with that or the fact that, because of better battlefield medical care, many soldiers who once would have died are returning home maimed _ having lost limbs, sight or hearing _ or are having difficulty readapting to civilian life.

Principi is not popular with many veterans, however, because he acted while secretary to rule that many of them are no longer eligible for health care from the VA. Because thousands of veterans were waiting an average of 38 days (and a quarter of them waited two months) for appointments at the department’s hospitals and 856 outpatient clinics, Principi rationed care in favor of the less well-off and disabled. That meant thousands were shut out of the system. Even Principi’s deputy, Gordon Mansfield, injured in Vietnam, was turned away from six overbooked VA centers.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, who has served on the House Veterans Affairs Committee for much of her more than two decades in Congress and who sponsored a bill that led to erecting the World War II Memorial in Washington, said her reading of the president’s budget shows that it would fall $15 billion below what is needed for veterans over the next five years.

“So how are we going to care for all those new veterans with serious injuries coming home?” she asked.