- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 25, 2006


More than a quarter-million veterans considered to have higher incomes could not sign up for health care with the Veterans Affairs Department during the past fiscal year because of a cost-cutting move.

Those locked out — totaling 263,257 in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 — have no illnesses or injuries attributable to their service in the military and earn more than the average wage in their community.

The VA suspended enrollment of such veterans beginning in January 2003 after then-VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi said the agency was struggling to provide adequate health care to the rapidly rising number of veterans seeking it.

That year, the VA population was about 6.8 million. About 7.5 million are enrolled today, with more than 5 million treated.

“There is no reason for the VA to give the cold shoulder to veterans who have served our country honorably,” said Rep. Lane Evans of Illinois, ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

VA spokesman Matt Burns said the agency provides world-class health care to veterans, “particularly our newly returning veterans, those with low incomes and those who have sustained service-related injuries or illnesses.”

Iraq veterans are guaranteed health care if they enroll within two years of leaving the military.

President Bush’s budgets have included proposals to require some veterans to pay a portion of their care with co-payments, but Congress has repeatedly rejected that idea.

Although Congress has increased VA’s budget in recent years, the agency found itself with a gaping budget hole last year and had to ask Congress for emergency funding. Veterans groups and some lawmakers say the agency’s increases have been inadequate, but others say the agency has to set priorities on who gets care.

“Our first priority is to care for veterans who were hurt or disabled in service and who need our help. We are doing that,” said Jeff Phillips, communications director for Rep. Steve Buyer, Indiana Republican and House VA Committee chairman.

When it suspended enrollments, VA estimated that about 522,000 veterans would not enroll for health care because of the suspension through September 2005, saving the agency about $780 million. Numbers for fiscal 2004 were not available.

In 1996, Congress ordered the agency to open health care to nearly all veterans. However, lawmakers also gave authority to the VA secretary to suspend enrollments as needed.

VA calculated the fiscal 2005 total by counting veterans whose applications to enroll were rejected because they fell into the so-called “Priority 8” category. The number includes veterans in all states as well as Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and 793 veterans listed as other or unknown territory.

According to the numbers provided by Mr. Evans, Florida had the highest number of veterans rejected, 27,465, followed by Texas with 19,204, California with 17,378 and Pennsylvania with 13,262.

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