- The Washington Times - Monday, October 4, 2004

ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — All former U.S. prisoners of war who suffer from heart disease or stroke will receive government health care benefits without having to prove the ailments were linked to their captivity, Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony J. Principi said Saturday night.

He announced the benefits while addressing the annual convention of the American Ex-Prisoners of War, an Arlington, Texas-based group with about 21,000 members nationwide.

Former POWs had received coverage if they could prove their heart disease or stroke was caused by deprivation and brutality while imprisoned decades ago. But proving that link was difficult despite studies that have shown that stress in captivity leads to such ailments, Mr. Principi said.

“These are the men and some women who endured the most brutal of hardships in captivity,” Mr. Principi said. “Their stories are what it means to be an American.”

About 20,000 former POWs are expected to receive the new benefits, which will go into effect Thursday and do not require congressional approval. The benefits will cost at least $26 million the first year and will be absorbed in the VA health care budget, Mr. Principi said.

John Ray Lemons, an 84-year-old World War II pilot who was shot down in Germany and held captive for a year, has had only partial coverage after two recent heart attacks. But now he plans to file more paperwork.

“There are more things I can do that I haven’t done,” he said.

About 35,900 American ex-POWs were alive as of January, including more than 33,000 from World War II, 2,100 from the Korean War and nearly 600 from the Vietnam War, according to the VA.

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