In his second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln committed the nation “to care for him who shall have borne the battle.” He didn’t say how or when, and he surely never imagined that the country would someday spend $27.2 billion a year on health care for veterans and still not get it right.
The United States has 28 million military veterans. Because of rising private health care costs, more of them than ever are seeking services from the Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals – 4.7 million this year, up 54 percent since 1996. Another 2.3 million vets will receive out-of-hospital benefits from the VA this year. And even though the Bush administration recommended a $1.4 billion budget increase for the VA this year, some veterans organization say that’s not nearly enough.
Mr. Bush’s original budget recommendations, submitted last winter when he was still contemplating a $726 billion tax cut, would have sliced $14 billion in veterans benefits. It would have required veterans to pay higher enrollment fees for medical care, and raised their co-pay for prescription drugs to $15 from $7. The $27.2 billion VA budget passed by the House last month eliminated those ideas, but is still “wholly inadequate,” says Ray Sisk, commander in chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Mr. Sisk said there are 150,000 veterans waiting six months or more for medical appointments and called for the Senate to add at least $2 billion to the VA’s 2004 budget when it writes its version this fall.
The funding problem is complicated not only because of rising health care costs, but by other factors. Many World War II and Korean War veterans now require expensive end-of-life care. Medicine now relies heavily on specialists, and many specialists don’t want to sign contracts with the VA. The VA runs a system of large hospitals in an era when most health care is predicated on short hospital stays or outpatient care in clinics.
To his credit, Mr. Bush has been pushing the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments to find ways of sharing the burden of caring for the medical needs of America’s active duty and retired military personnel. The Pentagon spends about $20 billion a year on 6.2 million active and retired career personnel and their families, on top of the $27 billion the VA spends. This summer, Congress received a report on ways the two systems can mesh, but getting the two largest bureaucracies in government to cooperate has been difficult.
Mr. Bush should continue to push for efficiencies even as he is careful not to shortchange the men and women who have borne the burden of the nation’s defense. If the nation can spend $1 billion a week on its mission in Iraq, it can surely spend the equivalent of two weeks of that to make sure its veterans can see a doctor on time.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch