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Penalizing veterans

IT IS a sign of how desperate the Bush administration is to protect tax cuts for the wealthy while also trying to reduce runaway deficits that it would call for veterans to pay more for their health benefits. Congress should reject this proposal out of hand and put enough money into veterans' health care to end the inexcusable waiting lists at many veterans' facilities.

Under the Bush proposal, veterans would have to pay an enrollment fee of $250 for VA care. Their copay for prescription drugs would rise from $7 to $15 for a monthly prescription. The administration lamely defends these charges by noting that they are for "higher-income" veterans without service-connected disabilities. According to Joe March of the American Legion, the administration defines "higher income" as $25,000 or more, which hardly qualifies as the Boca Raton set. A VA spokesman said the income level is based on local conditions. He could not provide a national average.

The goal of the administration, which has made similar proposals in the past, is to save close to a half-billion dollars by coaxing more than 200,000 veterans to seek care in other venues. But increasing numbers of older Americans have been turning to VA clinics and hospitals because they have lost their employment-based insurance and discovered that Medicare will not start covering prescription drug costs until 2006. Many of these veterans do not have affordable alternatives. According to Representative Stephen Lynch of South Boston, veterans in his district often have to wait eight months to see a doctor.

Treatment of veterans without service-related disabilities is considered "discretionary" spending by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans' advocates think this care should not be discretionary but mandatory, like Medicare. In spite of the growing number of veterans from recent wars, the increasingly severe health needs of older veterans, and overall increases in health costs, the administration is asking for just a 2.7 percent increase for "discretionary" health care. Veterans groups favor an increase of 25 percent.

That is not realistic, but it is a reflection of the frustration the advocates feel knowing that inadequate spending for veterans' health is undermining the unwritten promise of lifetime care that many veterans believe was made to them when they took the oath.

"Veterans' health care is an ongoing expense of war," the American Legion's national commander, Thomas Cadmus, said yesterday. It is particularly wrong-headed for the administration to squeeze veterans when some of the armed services have had trouble filling their ranks. Congress should tell the Bush administration that veterans, who enlisted to help their nation, should not be enlisted anew, involuntarily, and burdened with the job of balancing the budget. 

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