The Memorial Day boondoggle

Posted: May 27, 2003 12:00 AM

Critics of President Bush are spewing vicious rumors that his proposed tax cut will result in a loss of medical benefits for thousands of veterans. The major implication: President Bush cares about our soldiers' right up until the point that they return from battle. Then they are discarded.


In reality, President Bush has provided record support for America's veterans. His 2004 budget earmarks $63.6 billion in veteran benefits. That includes a nearly 8 percent increase over fiscal 2003 in funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs and a 32 percent increase in overall funding since fiscal 2001.

Rumors to the contrary were likely fueled by a recent parliamentary resolution requesting across the board cuts of 1 percent in funding for most federal agencies. Even with these cuts, the money Bush requested for Veteran's Affairs still would have marked a record increase. But the fact is that the Veteran's Administration is exempted from these cuts.

Even with this funding increase, the VA faces a difficult situation. In 1996, Congress enacted "open enrollment" legislation authorizing the VA to offer free or low-cost medical benefits to nearly all of the 25 million veterans living in the United States. These benefits were supposed to be underwritten by various provisions allowing, among other things, for the VA to charge Medicare for services rendered. Enrollment ballooned, but the economic provisions were never enacted, creating a huge strain on the system. An aging veteran population now threatens to make the entire system go boom.

Against this backdrop, a difficult decision was made-to pare back benefits for the "lowest-priority" veterans, or those who are financially secure and have no service-connected disability. This was the only way that the VA could continue to fulfill its basic obligation to "Priority One Veterans," or those who are 50 percent or more disabled from combat wounds.

This does not mean that able-bodied veterans fall by the wayside. The VA will continue to provide care for them. Only these veterans will make modest co-pays or pay enrollment fees - a policy long practiced by the DOD for those military retirees with 20 or more years of service.

Forced to choose between offering free care for low-priority veterans - many of whom already have such options available to them - and severely disabled veterans who depend on such care, the VA chose the latter. It was a difficult compromise, but one that was necessary to ensure an adequate quality of life for those veterans who sacrificed their bodies for our country.

Still, rumors that President Bush's budget brutally and arbitrarily discards this country's servicemen and women persist. In an April 13 Chicago Tribune editorial, a congressman wrongly mentioned a "$28 billion cut in veterans' benefits and health care..." A May 13 Boston Globe editorial begins, "JUST WEEKS before he sent a new generation of U.S. troops into battle in Iraq, President Bush filed a budget that would trim veterans' benefits and reduce drastically the assistance the government provides for the education of the children of soldiers."

For obvious reasons, neither editorial mentions that the president actually requested and received a record increase in funding for the Veterans Administration. Nor does either editorial offer a workable alternative to the fiscal realities currently facing the Veteran's Administration. They merely distill a complex issue into an opportunity to wag one's finger at the president.

Memorial Day should have been a time to honor the sacrifices of our bravest citizens. Instead, critics of the president hijacked the holiday and used it as a prop in a political vendetta. This is worse than misleading, it is dangerous because it assaults the morale of those soldiers on whom we depend for protection.