By Arthur H. Wilson
November 11, 2005
Federal funding for veterans programs over the years has not even kept pace with inflation, let alone the increased demands on the Department of Veterans Affairs for health care and other earned benefits. The administration claims to have provided record increases for veterans, yet thousands of them have been denied access to VA health care. Because of budget shortfalls, VA facilities in every region of the country have exhausted reserve funds to meet critical needs. Many have stopped hiring doctors and nurses, while still others have cut back or even eliminated medical services. It is a clear indication that the men and women who have served and sacrificed for our country are not a national priority
But inadequate funding for medical care isn't the only thing veterans are concerned about.
In recent years we have witnessed a systematic erosion of veterans benefits even while our nation is engaged in a war that is adding to the ranks of sick and disabled veterans who will need the VA for decades to come.
As we entered March 2003, American troops had been fighting Taliban forces and terrorists in Afghanistan for well over a year. The invasion of Iraq was imminent. Yet the House of Representatives was considering a budget that would have reduced spending for veterans programs by some $25 billion over the next decade to help pay for the administration's massive tax cut package.
Then in September 2003, the House leadership sought a provision in the 2004 defense authorization bill that would have denied disability compensation and priority for health care to veterans whose disabilities were not directly related to performance of their official military duties.
Amid growing criticism, however, that unconscionable scheme was quietly abandoned. But as U.S. casualties continued to mount in Iraq and Afghanistan, a compromise plan devised by the House Armed Services Committee leadership set up a new commission to investigate the justification for the disability benefits veterans receive. That was done without holding hearings or even consulting the Veterans' Affairs Committee.
A year later, Congress directed the Defense Department to study disability benefits for current and past members of the military. The bill also mandated a Government Accountability Office study of benefits payable under federal, state and local laws to government employees for disabilities incurred in the performance of their jobs.
More recently, benefits for disabled veterans have come under renewed attack. The government is reviewing the claims of some 72,000 veterans who are rated by the VA as totally disabled and unemployable due to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The review is focused on claims that may have been improperly granted, yet there are no plans to examine claims that may have been improperly denied.
This ill-advised review will divert much-needed resources from the VA's overload of disability compensation claims yet to be processed and comes at a time when one in four of those returning from the war in Iraq are expected to suffer from PTSD or other mental health problems.
And as if to add insult to injury, House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) recently announced that veterans service organizations will no longer have the opportunity to present testimony before a joint hearing of the House and Senate Veterans' Affairs Committees. For several decades now, these joint hearings have been held each year to allow the leaders of veterans service organizations to discuss their group's legislative agenda and foremost concerns with the lawmakers who have jurisdiction over federal veterans programs.
Eliminating these joint hearings is an affront to the men and women who have fought and died to protect our Constitutional rights, including their right to petition the government.
Veterans shouldn't have to fight proposals to limit eligibility or means test disability compensation. They shouldn't have to fight negative stereotypes that veterans suffering from PTSD and other mental conditions related to their military service are just "gaming the system." They shouldn't have to fight their own government after fighting America's enemies.
So, next time you see one of those "Support Our Troops" signs or car magnets, remember the men and women who help keep us free and safe. But let's make sure their service and sacrifice are not forgotten when they come home. Support our veterans.
Arthur H. Wilson
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