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Veterans' Groups say Programs Need Cash

Atlanta Journal-Constitution | November 28, 2005

Washington - Even as President Bush and Congress heap praise and promises of support on troops in Iraq and veterans at home, veterans' groups say the federal government is failing them by woefully under funded programs on which vets rely.

Their complaint seems to contradict the evidence: The Bush administration, with a push from Congress, added more than $20 billion to the Veterans Affairs budget in Bush's first four years in office, more than the Clinton administration added in eight years.

And Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson of Georgia, along with others in Congress from defense-reliant states, are pushing to raise benefits for National Guard members and reservists to more closely match those of active-duty military personnel, increase access to the VA's prescription drug benefit and ensure that veterans are given preferential treatment in federal hiring.

Yet even with a VA budget of $68 billion, the government's financial commitment is being outpaced by the rising cost of health care and the soaring number of veterans eligible for health care, Education and housing assistance. Veterans groups say that with the White House pushing for veterans to pay more for their health care and Congress slashing the budget to cover the deficit, pay for the Iraq war and cover hurricane cleanup costs, it is likely to get worse for veterans before it gets better. "We're a continuing cost of war," Joseph Violante, national legislative director of the Disabled American Veterans, said. "If you want your freedoms, if you want your safety and your peace, you have to pay for it."

About 25 million veterans ---a figure equal to more than half of the 43 million people who have served in the military since the American Revolution --- are now eligible for VA benefits, according to VA and Pentagon estimates. That includes 3.6 million aging World War II veterans and a new generation of service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 1 million vets were added to the VA's rolls in Bush's first term alone.

With increased costs and demand, the VA earlier this year revealed a $1 billion shortfall in health care funding, generating Democratic charges that the Republican-controlled White House and Congress were shortchanging vets even as they publicly vowed support.

Bush proposed adding $100 million for VA health benefits in his 2006 budget request, but that is $3.4 billion short of what a coalition of the nation's largest veterans groups said is necessary to meet current needs. Also, the White House once again proposed more than doubling veterans' co-payment on prescription drugs --- to $15 for each prescription each month --- and to impose a $250 annual enrollment fee on the drug program to help meet the soaring cost of medical care.

Congress is bumping up the spending and once again canceling most of the administration's plans to charge veterans more.

Veterans groups have for years been pressing Congress to solve the problem by converting the VA's health care programs to mandatory funding, which would allow its funding to rise annually according to inflation and need --- as does the funding for entitlement programs like Social Security.

Much of the VA's budget, including pensions and disability compensation, is already for mandatory programs. Running health care the same way would end veterans' annual competition for funds. "That would take the politics out of it, and a lot of it is politics," said Edward Kemp, national commander of Amvets.

Legislation to convert the VA health benefits is circulating in Congress, but hasn't moved far. The administration and GOP lawmakers insist they're meeting their obligations to veterans. "We would love to fund every single program and every agency to the fullest extent as the desires of the beneficiaries would like us to," Chambliss said.

"Unfortunately, that's not the case with any agency."

Isakson said making VA health benefits an entitlement would only run up costs.

"The argument against all mandatory spending is that once you define it as mandatory you put it on cruise control and it's out of the control of Congress," he said. "That's what has gotten us into problems with a lot of programs." Changes proposed

Chambliss earlier this month won passage of a measure that would lower the retirement age for National Guard members and reservists who go on active duty, as so many have in Iraq. Those with 20 years of service would be able to retire as early as age 50 under the proposal.

But this is Chambliss' third try to pass the legislation. The Pentagon and administration opposed past measures, claiming they were too costly. The Pentagon has not opposed his latest bill, but Congress hasn't provided money for it either. Chambliss said he hopes to get full funding --- $300 million over five years --- in the 2007 budget.

Isakson, who sits on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and Chambliss also backed a measure that would give wounded soldiers who live with their families up to $10,000 each to add wheelchair ramps, railings or other accommodations for the disabled to the home even if the soldier isn't the owner. Only veterans who own their own home get the benefit now, even though many of the wounded are so young they have not yet bought a home.

"We are improving vet benefits," said Isakson, adding that Bush "is not being disingenuous at all" in saying he supports the troops while proposing only modest increases in spending. Progress has been made, particularly with prescription drugs and computerization of patients' records, Isakson said. "The 'not good enough' argument is not an acceptable statement to me when, in fact, you're improving," he said.

Copyright 2005 Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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