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Published: Saturday, 5/24/2003

A slap at our veterans

Hope your Memorial Day weekend was a good one, veterans. Thanks for your service to your country. And oh, by the way, we need to talk about your medical benefits. That's the real message the federal government is sending to the men and women who have worn the uniform.

That's because the White House proposes to change the rules for access to veterans' health care benefits so that 45,000 Ohio vets and thousands more in Michigan could be among those nationwide without medical coverage.

When the administration said last winter that it intended to “focus its health care assets on providing medical care to veterans who need it most,” nobody took that to mean no health benefits for veterans. Yet as outrageous as that sounds, it could become reality for many if the President's 2004 budget proposal survives as is. And it might have slipped it by an unsuspecting public were it not for Ohio Congressman Ted Strickland.

A study he requested of the House Committee on Government Reform shows that “low priority” groups of veterans are targeted to pay yearly enrollment fees and more on their co-payments. According to the study, veterans who do not have disabilities related to the service and whose income is more than $24,000 would pay a $250 annual fee. Other groups of veterans could pay $20, up from $15, for a doctor's visit, and $15, up from $7, for a 30-day prescription.

And the Bush proposal could also mean another 4,000 Ohio vets with “high” incomes wouldn't be eligible at all for veterans' health benefits. Mr. Strickland, a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, correctly called all this “a slap in the face to veterans.” The proposal is an affront to the men and women of every age who have risked their lives and served in the U.S. military. This is not what young veterans want or need to hear after they helped the Bush Administration obtain victory in Iraq. Several hundred of them are still recovering from their wounds. It's unconscionable that the federal government would think of not granting health benefits it promised to young adults when they enlisted to serve the nation.

This move can't even be justified on cost savings grounds. To fully fund veterans' health benefits would take less than 2 percent of the cost of the Bush Administration's proposed tax cuts.

The Bush plan would discourage young people from joining the military. The administration has made it clear it considers this nation to be in a long war against terrorism - a war it has said may require further military action. To suggest that young people enlist and fight without the prospect of proper medical coverage in later life is an affront to living U.S. troops and all our war dead. The young men and women who fought Mr. Bush's war and rid Iraq of its dictator deserve better, and so do those who fought for their country long ago.



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