- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2005

Dear Sgt. Shaft:

The American Legion is extremely disappointed with the inadequate appropriations allocation given to the new military quality of life, veterans affairs and related agencies appropriations subcommittee with recent passage of appropriations bill H.R. 2528 that would inadequately fund the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for fiscal 2006. It simply did not provide enough funds for a nation at war to meet its obligations of active-duty service members, veterans and their families.

Earlier this year, the House leadership reduced the number of the Committee on Appropriations subcommittees from 13 to 10. One of the subcommittees lost was the subcommittee on the departments of Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development and independent agencies.

This moved VA into a new subcommittee that includes defense health programs, military construction, the American Battlefield Monuments Commission, Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, defense cemeteries, and the Armed Forces Retirement Home.

Instead of being in “budget battles” over limited dollars with HUD projects, NASA and others, VA is now in direct competition with active-duty service members, military retirees and their families.

Historically, lawmakers understood the high funding priority for VA in comparison with other programs within the subcommittee, but now everything in this new subcommittee is a high national priority.

For example, some lawmakers are quick to point out the $1.6 billion increase in VA medical services, but do not mention how they achieved it through reductions in fiscal 2005 funding levels:

• $533 million for medical administration.

• $417 million for medical facilities.

• $9 million reduction in medical and prosthetics research.

• $184 million increase in medical care collections from veterans and their health insurance companies.

Overall, the Veterans Health Administration’s increase for fiscal 2006 is about $500 million, clearly not enough to maintain current services. Local VA medical facilities will have to begin rationing care.

That means many veterans will be denied timely access to quality health care. As this budget is being finalized, VA medical facilities across the country are already experiencing fiscal 2005 budgetary shortfalls, and we are not even in the final quarter of that fiscal cycle. One VA medical center director is no longer scheduling appointments for new enrollees and Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson is still denying enrollment of others.

Our nation recently observed Memorial Day and, as Independence Day nears, our thoughts turn to those veterans who paid the ultimate price for freedom. I hope the nation remembers its obligation to the men and women of the armed forces — past, present and future.

Turning veterans away from a VA medical facility falls well short of that expectation.

Thomas P. Cadmus,

national commander,

American Legion

Dear Commander:

Several years ago, Congress passed Tricare for Life, a program to guarantee lifelong health care for military retirees and their families. This legislation assured hundreds of thousands of military families free health care services sponsored entirely by the government.

In past years, legislation was introduced to extend the same kind of guarantee to the remainder of America’s veterans, to assure their continued access to the VA health care system.

It should be noted that this legislation would neither take away the secretary’s power to manage the VA health care system, nor to curtail the secretary’s control of enrollments in VA. And, unlike Tricare for Life, it would not extend benefits to family members of veterans.

We have a sacred obligation to ensure that our nation’s veterans receive the honors and benefits that they have earned through their service to this nation.

In the past decade, more and more veterans have turned to the Department of Veterans Affairs for medical services, particularly World War II and Korean War veterans. However, the demand for services continues to outpace the supply of federal funding of VA health care.

It is becoming increasingly clear that Congress needs to look at new methods and sources for veterans’ health care funding, and to seek additional ways to match resources to the growing demand, such as increasing health care resources sharing between the Defense Department and VA health care systems. VA continues to struggle each year to provide all the funds needed for the tasks it faces in caring for millions of frail, elderly veterans.

More than 40 percent of the veterans being treated by VA are eligible for Medicare. These veterans have paid for their VA health care though their military service as well as through their Medicare payroll taxes.

Ironically, the VA medical system receives none of the billions of dollars paid into Medicare by these deserving veterans. I urge all members of Congress to actively support vital legislation that will guarantee adequate health care funding for our nation’s veterans. In this time of war, it would be unconscionable for this new Appropriations subcommittee, military quality of life and veterans affairs and related agencies, to pit one veteran against another.

Shaft notes

The Department of Veterans Affairs has announced a national outreach campaign to locate veterans who were exposed to mustard gas or the chemical weapon lewisite during their service. The VA is mailing information to veterans and survivors within the first group of participants identified by the Defense Department.

VA is continuing to seek addresses for additional veterans and survivors, and the VA invites veterans to file disability compensation claims for any condition related to service. Veterans or their survivors with questions should contact VA at 800/749-8387.

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 sgtshaft@bavf.org.

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