- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Many veterans must wait more than a year for an appointment with a primary care doctor at Veterans Affairs health facilities. Some die before even being seen by a physician.

That’s intolerable, said Ronald F. Conley, national commander of the American Legion.

“It’s a two-year wait for veterans wishing to see a doctor at the VA Medical Center in Togus, Maine,” Mr. Conley said in a telephone interview from his Indianapolis office.

“How many people outside VA would tolerate a doctor’s appointment that can’t be made inside a year? It happens all over the country, all the time,” Mr. Conley, an Air Force veteran, writes in an article in the May issue of the American Legion Magazine.

“From Maine to California, from Washington to Florida — even in Hawaii — everyone is waiting, waiting, waiting. Veterans continue to spend intolerably long periods of time trying to access the health care they earned and now need,” the legion commander said.

Asked in the telephone interview if some veterans have died waiting to see a VA doctor, Mr. Conley said, “Absolutely.”

The entire May issue of the American Legion Magazine deals with the Department of Veterans Affairs’ beleaguered health care system, and makes recommendations to “steer … it away from disaster.” Key among them are proposals to make VA funding mandatory, rather than discretionary.

“We have a veterans’ health care crisis throughout this country right now,” Mr. Conley said during a recent stop at the American Legion’s national headquarters in Indianapolis. With nearly 2.9 million members, the legion is the nation’s largest veterans group.

Mr. Conley, a third-generation pipefitter from Pittsburgh, has visited more than 43 VA hospitals since becoming national commander in December. In 1996, Congress passed legislation expanding eligibility for VA medical services, he said.

“But they didn’t appropriate enough money,” Mr. Conley said yesterday.

There were 4 million veterans in the VA health system before that change. “There are 6.7 million in the system today,” he said.

Mr. Conley wrote that the “philosophy of a VA for all veterans was great, but paying for it was a different story.”

“That’s how we got into the rationing of health care. That’s what you do when you don’t have enough to go around. You ration,” he said.

In his article, titled “A System Worth Saving,” the commander writes: “Our government designed the system, asked veterans to enroll in it and now fails to cover the cost. It is America’s most underfunded mandate.

“Staff shortages are epidemic, facility improvements are paralyzed, and the time it takes to get in to see a VA doctor is unconscionable,” Mr. Conley added.

Discretionary budget authority for the Department of Veterans Affairs would increase to $28.1 billion in fiscal 2004, up from $25.4 billion this year. “But the VA system needs an additional $1.5 billion to $3 billion” to serve veterans in a timely manner, the legion commander said.

Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican and chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, is sponsoring a bill that would make VA funding mandatory. Mr. Conley said most Americans are shocked to learn that funding for veterans’ health care is not already mandatory.

“It’s always been discretionary. Congress likes having the power to control where money goes and who gets so much,” said the commander.

However, Leo S. Mackay Jr., deputy secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs said the problem is chiefly due to the crush in demand caused by the 1996 legislation that allowed all veterans — not just those suffering service-related illnesses — to qualify for VA care.

The veteran population keeps growing. The American Legion estimates that every year there are approximately 300,000 new veterans. Eventually, they will require medical care.

Not surprisingly, there is a tremendous backlog of veterans waiting for VA to serve them.

“The VA secretary says they are making progress toward correcting the problem, but I believe that when we’re talking about progress from 300,000 to 200,000, there’s still far too many people waiting to get through the system. One is too many,” he said.

Judith Person contributed to this article.

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