Legion commander: VA enrollment cutbacks avoidable

Legion commander: VA enrollment cutbacks avoidable Denying veterans access to health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs, particularly while young men and women fight the war on terrorism and prepare to do battle in Iraq, is unacceptable to the 2.8-million member American Legion, the nation's largest veterans organization.

VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi announced that enrollment for VA health care will be suspended, effective today, for so-called higher-income veterans who seek treatment for conditions that are not service-connected, Priority Group 8 veterans. VA estimates 164,000 veterans will be affected.

"This is a raw deal for veterans, no matter how you cut it," American Legion National Commander Ronald F. Conley said. "By denying a certain priority group, the administration is sending the message that these veterans are not a priority at all, even if they have health insurance that VA can bill for the cost of their medical treatment; VA health care is not free to all veterans. Additionally, the income threshold that determines whether someone belongs in Priority Group 8 is so low that no one can say, with a straight face, that all these veterans are well-off.

"Here's a better idea: Instead of squeezing the system to meet the budget, why not make the budget fit the rising demand for VA health care? That way, citizen-soldiers � who endured family separation and the inherent hazards of preserving our freedom � are not forgotten. With adequate funding, VA can trim the backlog of about 300,000 veterans who have been waiting months for primary-care appointments. Of course, veterans with any form of service-connected disability must remain the highest priority.

"I sincerely hope some valuable lessons have been learned. For instance, if Congress ever again approves a supplemental spending bill containing funding for VA, the president would do well not to veto it, as he did last year. The administration also should not ask Congress for less than VA needs, then tell veterans: 'Sorry. We didn't budget for you.' Imagine the message that sends to someone either wearing the uniform today or considering an offer from a military recruiter.

"In the meantime, The American Legion will work with members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, to pass long-term funding solutions. We will continue to fight for Medicare-reimbursement legislation that will allow Medicare to pay VA for the cost of health care it provides to Medicare-eligible veterans. Further, we will continue to press for mandatory-funding legislation that will have a formula built into it that will ensure VA receives adequate funding to meet its statutory requirement to treat all veterans who enroll for health care there."

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