- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 25, 2005

Dear Sgt. Shaft:

What are your feelings about the 2006 Veterans Affairs budget? I am not happy with the way veterans are being treated by our government.

Terry J.

Vietnam 1970-71, Northern I Corps

Dear Terry:

I wholeheartedly agree with you and with the veterans service organizations that are spearheading the Veterans Affairs independent budget project.

As the veterans service organizations argue, “The fiscal year 2006 budget request recently released by the president follows a script military veterans have seen before from administration budget hawks: meager increases, new user fees and an attempt to help offset the nation’s budget deficit by shortchanging disabled veterans.”

The administration proposes a VA health care budget of $28.1 billion for fiscal 2006, an insufficient increase given the influx into the system of new veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In contrast, the independent budget — a comprehensive budget policy document co-authored by Amvets, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Veterans of Foreign Wars — recommended $31.2 billion in funding for veterans’ health care during 2006. This suggested funding increase of $3.5 billion is designed to meet realistic inflation and health care demand increases. This increase does not include onerous enrollment fees or increased co-payments for prescriptions put forward by the administration.

Discounting the projected additional revenues from an annual $250 enrollment fee, and more than doubling prescription co-pays for thousands of veterans, the administration’s health care funding increase provides new appropriations of only $111 million. This is an increase of 0.4 percent over last year’s appropriation, which falls far short of meeting veterans’ needs.

Each year, the veterans groups that create the independent budget petition Congress to sufficiently fund VA health care and other vital programs. But VA remains underfunded and unable to provide timely access to quality health care to many of our nation’s veterans. This annual budget crisis requires a fundamental overhaul of the budget and appropriations process for veterans’ medical care.

An alternative approach — mandatory funding — would ensure that the government meets its obligation to ensure all veterans eligible for VA health care have access to timely, quality care. But until mandatory funding becomes a reality, however, it is vital that the VA health care system receive the resources it needs through the annual appropriations process, and that the funding be provided at the start of the fiscal year, instead of being delayed for months, as has happened so often in recent years.

The budget proposal slashes $351 million from veterans’ nursing homes by serving 28,000 fewer residents and eliminating $104 million in state grants.

It cuts $4 million from medical and prosthetic research, bringing to $53 million the total amount cut from research in two years.

The proposed increase of 113 employees to help process veterans’ disability claims barely covers the number of positions that were deleted last year, and won’t begin to make a dent in the current backlog of 480,000 compensation and pension claims, a number of which are from veterans from the current war on terrorism.

The country’s 25 million veterans, 2.2 million uniformed members and their families voted overwhelmingly for this administration last year to make a difference in their lives, yet this budget fails to live up to the nation’s obligation to veterans because it doesn’t acknowledge that the costs of war continue long after the last shots are fired.

I also believe that Congress must adopt Medicare reimbursement as payment for VA medical care. More than 40 percent of veterans receiving VA health care have paid Medicare premiums and are entitled to the benefit. However, the VA does not now receive one dime from the Medicare fund for their care.

Shaft notes

The Department of Veterans Affairs recently announced that more than 1.2 million veterans nationwide are in line to receive $414 million in annual insurance dividends over the coming year.

The dividend payments will be sent to an estimated 1.24 million policyholders on the anniversary date of their policies.

Sent automatically through different payment options, the specific dividend amount will vary based on the age of the veteran, the type of insurance and the length of time the policy has been in force. Dividends are paid each year to veterans holding certain government life insurance policies and who served between 1917 and 1956.

The dividends are drawn from the earnings on the trust fund into which veterans have paid insurance premiums over the years, and are linked to returns on investments in U.S. government securities.

Veterans who have questions about their policy may call the VA Insurance toll-free number at 800/669-8477, send e-mail to [email protected], or find information on the Internet at www.insurance.va.gov.

Send letters to Sgt. Shaft, c/o John Fales, PO Box 65900, Washington, D.C. 20035-5900; fax 301/622-3330; call 202/257-5446; or e-mail [email protected]

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