By Rick Maze - Staff writer
Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s call to “concentrate” veterans’ health care on those with combat injuries is raising questions about the Arizona senator’s commitment to funding the ailing VA system.
Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., said a system that treats combat veterans and non-combat veterans differently is inherently unfair. “We can care for both combat veterans and non-combat veterans if we just decide it is an important thing to do,” Filner said Thursday, one day after McCain talked at a Dover, N.H., town hall meeting about the need to concentrate veterans’ health care on people with injuries that “are a direct result of combat.”
“Right now, there are people who drive a long way and they stand in line to stand in line to get an appointment to get an appointment,” McCain said.
Filner agreed veterans are being ill-served by the Veterans Affairs Department, but he disagreed with the idea that only combat veterans deserved attention. “We are not providing adequate health care for combat veterans. We are not providing adequate care for veterans who never saw combat,” Filner said.
Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, said McCain “appears to want to significantly narrow the number of veterans who can use VA, and that would alarm many veterans.”
Sullivan said veterans “should be very concerned by any effort to restrict access to VA health care and benefits by excluding other veterans with medical conditions clearly linked with their military service, such as illnesses related to Agent Orange poisoning, injures incurred in the combat zone, injuries due to training, and the adverse side effects of vaccines and experimental drugs.
“Our veterans and the American public need to know that VA remains mired in crisis due to the poor planning by the Bush administration to handle the tidal wave of 325,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran casualties now being treated at VA hospitals and clinics,” Sullivan said.
McCain’s campaign press staff did not return telephone calls asking for additional comment.
The VA already has a priority system that puts at the top of the list for care people with service-connected disabilities rated at 50 percent or who cannot hold a job because of their service-connected disability. The severity of the injuries or disease is the chief factor in being placed in enrollment priority 1, not whether the problem is the result of combat or from peacetime service.
At the bottom of the VA’s list are veterans with moderate incomes who do not have any service-related health problems.
The Bush administration has barred veterans at the bottom of the priority list from even enrolling in the veterans’ health system, a decision that Democrats in Congress have talked about overriding.
Additionally, the Bush administration has drawn distinctions between combat and non-combat injuries as it has worked with Congress on a wide range of benefits issues, including increases in death gratuity payments, traumatic injury insurance and the ability of military retirees to concurrently receive military and veterans’ disability benefits.
Congress went along with the Bush administration on treating military retirees with combat or combat-related injuries better in terms of pay than veterans with non-combat disabilities. Initially, Congress agreed to restrict traumatic injury insurance for active-duty service members to combat-related injuries but expanded the program to include all active-duty injuries, in or outside of a combat zone, after service members and their families complained.
McCain, like many other Republicans, have been slow to endorse providing additional money to the Department of Veterans Affairs when Democrats have been pressing for large increases. McCain and other Republicans have argued there is enough money available to treat veterans if the VA were to operate more efficiently.
Part of the reason McCain has opposed increases in veterans’ spending is his strongly held position against wasteful spending that often leads him to oppose any increase over the executive branch’s budget request.
McCain, a disabled Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war, has supported the idea of allowing disabled veterans to use non-VA facilities for some medical care, especially in rural areas where there are other federal health care facilities. This would be done by giving them a universal health access card.
While McCain’s votes — particularly votes against increasing the VA budget — have sometimes left him at odds with some veterans and major veterans’ service organizations, the political action committee of Veterans of Foreign Wars, the nation’s largest group of combat veterans, has endorsed McCain for every election since 1984, according to FactCheck.org