- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2002

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Veterans groups and their congressional allies say they will resist an administration proposal to help finance an increasingly popular VA health care program by asking some vets to pay a $1,500 annual deductible.
"We're deeply troubled by this," said Richard Fuller of the Paralyzed Veterans of America. He said it would deter veterans from getting their health care at the VA and put some of the VA's specialized services in spinal cord injuries, rehabilitation and long-term care out of the reach of some veterans.
The deductible, proposed in President Bush's budget outline for the year starting Oct. 1, is a result of the greater number of participants in the VA's health care program. Congress passed a law in 1996 opening VA medical facilities to nearly all veterans, not just the very poor and those with military disabilities who traditionally have been the core patients.
Since then, the number of veterans enrolled in VA health care has doubled, to 6 million, and one-third are in the new "priority 7" category. This class has slightly higher incomes $24,000 if single or $28,000 if married no service-related disabilities and no other qualifications such as Agent Orange or Persian Gulf war syndrome illnesses, exposure to atomic tests or a Purple Heart.
Under the administration proposal, these veterans or their insurance companies would pay 45 percent of the charges each time they receive medical care until they reach the $1,500 annual ceiling. After that, they would continue to pay minimal co-payments for outpatient and inpatient care. There would be no change in care for the VA's core groups, the poor and those with service-related disabilities.
The Veterans Affairs Department said the increased usage, along with higher costs for drugs, health care inflation and new mandates such as emergency, mental health and long-term care, "have all contributed to a financial challenge and hard budget decisions."
"We have an explosion in our workload," said VA Chief Financial Officer Mark Catlett. In order to keep the system open, those in the higher-income category are going to carry a larger share of the cost, he said.
Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican and chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, agreed that the government has to find a way to adequately fund the system, "but pricing people out of it with a high deductible isn't a viable way." The chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, is also concerned, said his spokeswoman, Wendy Frankson.
Jim Fischl, director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation at the American Legion, said his group understands the need for higher-income veterans to pay something toward the cost of their care. But "$1,500 is grossly out of line."


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