- The Washington Times - Friday, March 9, 2007

Republican Sen. Larry E. Craig has proposed allowing veterans to seek fully-paid-for medical treatment from private doctors outside the Veterans Affairs’ system — a scenario several veterans groups oppose.

Mr. Craig said veterans with service-related injuries or ailments should have the option of seeking care in the private sector if they wish.

“It’s very simple; if service-connected veterans leave [the VA] in droves, we’ve learned something. But if veterans overwhelmingly stay, and I think they will, we’ve also learned something,” said Mr. Craig, of Idaho, who introduced the bill Thursday.

“This bill is about my confidence in VA.”

But veterans service organizations say it could lead to privatizing veterans health care and the possible dismantling of the entire VA health care system.

“We’re not sure what the motivation of the bill is,” said Dave Autry, spokesman with the Disabled American Veterans. “We’re concerned it could open the gates to privatizing veterans health care, which we don’t think is a good idea.”

Eric Hilleman, a spokesman with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said VA hospitals and clinics — not private facilities — are best staffed and equipped to handle veterans. He said the VA is particularly renowned for its research and development of prosthetics.

“The VA medical system is not a perfect system, but they do a lot of things well,” Mr. Hilleman said. “A broad fix like this [bill] wouldn’t be a panacea for the VA’s problems.”

Under terms of the Veterans Healthcare Empowerment Act, eligible veterans with service-related disabilities could visit a private hospital, clinic, doctor or therapist and the government would pay 100 percent of the bill.

“The legislation says that if you have a service-related disability, you can go wherever you want — no ifs, ands or buts,” said Mr. Craig, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s ranking Republican.

About 2.5 million veterans have service-related disabilities — of which about 1.7 million use the VA health care system, the senator said. The VA operates 154 hospitals and 881 outpatient clinics.

Mr. Craig says the bill will not weaken the VA health care system.

“That’s totally not the intention,” said Jeff Schrade, a spokesman for the senator. “This would allow us to have a more dynamic reaction to the ebbs and flows of veterans.”

The senator has received dozens of e-mails from veterans across the country supporting the bill, Mr. Schrade said.

The bill had no co-sponsors when it was introduced. Sen. Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican, signed the bill yesterday.

Mr. Schrade said the senator didn’t actively seek co-signers because he was eager to introduce the bill in the wake of the recent negative publicity regarding structural problems at a building at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Several House members have expressed interest in introducing a companion bill, Mr. Schrade said.

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