- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

President Obama’s plan to generate extra budget money by forcing veterans to pay for some medical treatments through their private insurance is generating a firestorm among Republicans, Democrats and veterans, who argue that it’s unconscionable to pass along the costs of war to those injured serving their country.

The administration for weeks has circulated on Capitol Hill a plan to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in savings by tapping veterans’ private insurance for service-related injuries and ailments that for decades the government has been obligated to pay. On Monday, the president and his aides discussed the plan with veterans groups, who said the president told them it would generate $540 million.

It got an angry response.

“The United States government sent members of the armed forces into harm’s way, and not private insurance companies,” said American Legion Commander David K. Rehbein. “The American Legion does not and will not support any plan that seeks to bill a veteran for treatment of a service-connected disability at the very agency that was created to treat the unique need of America’s veterans.”

The administration publicly has been reticent on the issue. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs did not dispute that the plan was floated, but said Tuesday that no decisions have been made.

He said Mr. Obama “understands any concerns” the veterans groups have but also told them that his budget increases overall spending for veterans by 11 percent.

Despite the criticism over the proposal, veterans groups generally have given the administration high marks for increasing the VA’s budget.

“Overall we are very pleased with the president’s proposed budget,” Mr. Rehbein said. “It’s not that we’re just standing here with a baseball bat ready to hammer somebody.”

The veterans group leaders, who are scheduled to meet again with administration staff sometime this week, said the president suggested that if they didn’t like his plan they should come up with an alternative approach that would save $540 million.

“It became apparent during our discussion today that the president intends to move forward with this unreasonable plan,” Mr. Rehbein said Monday. “He says he is looking to generate $540 million by this method, but refused to hear arguments about the moral and government-avowed obligations that would be compromised by it.”

Mr. Obama’s proposal has received little if any support on Capitol Hill.

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Daniel K. Akaka, Hawaii Democrat, said his panel will neither draft nor advance any legislation that would shift veterans’ health care costs to the private sector and away from Veterans Affairs (VA).

“VA’s sacred duty is to care for veterans injured in honorable service to our nation, and the department should not turn to wounded warriors’ private insurance to pay for combat injures,” he said.

Rep. Tom Price, Georgia Republican, called the president’s plan “an offensive scheme” that skirts the government’s responsibility to care for the nation’s veterans.

“President Obama has apparently decided the one place he can cut spending is on our veterans,” said Mr. Price, chairman of the conservative House Republican Study Committee.

Sen. Jim Webb, who served in the Marines and was injured during the Vietnam War, said treatment for service-connected injuries “is clearly within the responsibility of the U.S. government through the Department of Veterans Affairs - period.”

But the Virginia Democrat, who served as Navy secretary under President Reagan, added that the proposal, if implemented without mandates forcing insurers to cover veterans, would be implausible because private medical insurance companies typically reject coverage to people with pre-existing injuries, including those suffered on the battlefield.

America’s Health Insurance Plans, the nation’s largest health insurance lobbying group, has refrained from commenting on the proposal until the administration releases more details, which it is expected to do when the White House submits its formal budget next month.

“We’ll carefully evaluate any proposal that’s put forth, but until we have more details it’s really hard to assess what kind of impact this might have,” said group spokesman Robert Zirkelbach.

Veterans groups worry that insurers will increase premium rates if the plan becomes law. And veterans with severe service-related injuries could quickly hit their maximum insurance coverage limits, leaving themselves and their families without health care benefits.

“It is unconscionable to pass along the costs of war to wounded and disabled veterans,” said Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Commander Glen M. Gardner Jr. “This is one policy proposal that the VFW will work hard to defeat because it breaks a sacred trust that veterans have with their government.”

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