- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 25, 2003

ASSOCIATED PRESS

This Memorial Day finds a political tussle over whether Republicans or Democrats are better serving veterans.

Democrats contend Republicans are shortchanging veterans to help pay for President Bush’s tax cuts. Republican lawmakers say Democrats are scaring older veterans with speeches about budget cuts.

Reports of budget cuts are “an unmitigated lie,” says the chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, said the 2004 spending plan that Congress approved last month provides $63.8 billion for veterans programs, a $6.2 billion increase from the current year. He says money for veterans’ health care services would increase $3.1 billion, to $27 billion.

Many Republicans joined Democrats in increasing the original White House budget proposal for veterans and in exempting veterans programs from an across-the-board 1 percent cut for all federal programs.

Democrats are not backing down. With hundreds of thousands of military personnel overseas, “the administration and Republicans in Congress would like to reward their service with fewer services for their fellow veterans,” said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland.

Democrats cite Congressional Budget Office figures that conclude spending projections would leave the Veterans Affairs Department $6.2 billion short of what it needs to meet its obligations over the next 10 years.

Funding to run VA health programs has grown an average 7.9 percent a year since 1998, but that is not keeping pace with medical inflation, increased demand and the rising costs of treating an aging veterans population.

“It’s a very tricky process,” said Bob Norton, deputy director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America. “We would say that the budget is a good starting point, but it’s not sufficient because demand continues to surpass capacity.”

Part of the problem is Congress’ own doing. In 1996, Congress opened the VA health care system to all veterans, and patient workload has increased since then from 2.7 million to 4.6 million people.

VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi has suspended new enrollments for higher income veterans, which is expected to keep out 164,000 veterans this year. He also has proposed an annual $250 enrollment fee for more affluent veterans and an increase in co-payments for outpatient care.

Meanwhile, both parties try to show they can do more for veterans; the political stakes are high. There are some 25 million veterans, and the VA says a total of about 70 million veterans, family members and survivors potentially are eligible for benefits and services.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, announced plans last week to provide money to reduce waiting times at VA hospitals — 200,000 veterans now are waiting up to six months for an appointment — as well as improve education opportunities for reservists and offer better benefits for survivors.

Democrats said they would work to change a century-old rule that reduces retirement benefits of disabled veterans by the amount they receive in disability pay.

Republicans in the House, in the week leading up to Memorial Day, pushed through bills to make permanent a housing loan guarantee program for reservist veterans and approve an annual cost-of-living increase for veterans’ benefits.

Steve Thomas, spokesman for the American Legion, said there is “one good thing about the one-upmanship” between the parties: “It will stimulate national debate about what our nation owes its patriots.”


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