Monday, June 11, 2007

No Exit: The Plight of Veterans’ Health Care

The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive how the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation. --George Washington

For presidential hopefuls, Memorial Day serves as an opportunity to participate in memorial services and subsequent photo opportunities, while paying tribute to America’s fallen soldiers. This year was no exception, especially in Iowa, as politicians offered their support of the troops currently serving overseas. Now that the post-Memorial Day political dust has fallen, the question facing American voters is to what extent politicians support our troops, in particular, those veteran soldiers returning from the theaters of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, where over 1.5 million Americans have served thus far.

Among these returning veterans, VA hospitals have seen a surge in health-related issues, both physical and psychological, that have far outpaced the funding provided by the federal government. Consequently, one of the biggest struggles between the Bush administration and veterans has been the fight over veterans’ health care policy. In 2006, Congress had to enact emergency legislation on two occasions to help supplement the VA’s budget by $1.4 billion to help bridge the funding gap. And it appears the 2007 budget is destined to fall short as well. In a study, “The Independent Budget,” coauthored by the DAV, AMVETS, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, and the VFW concluded that:

Congress will need to appropriate $26 billion for veterans’ medical needs just to maintain current service levels. The Administration’s budget for FY 2007 seeks $24.7 billion in appropriations for veterans’ medical services, which falls $1.3 billion short of the IB’s recommendation. The President’s FY 2007 medical care budget slightly increases the mental health services capacity; however, it continues the hiring freeze of all other direct health care providers at a time when an influx of new veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will place substantial new demands upon a system already struggling to meet its mission. This budget proposal estimates that only 109,191 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will seek treatment in 2007. This reflects a decrease of 1,375 below the number of these new war veterans the VA estimates it will treat in 2006.
This years’ budget for veterans’ health care expenses is optimistic and assumes fewer vets will seek treatment, which puts VA medical facilities in a financial quagmire. While the presidential hopefuls preach platitudes of support for the troops and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, voters need to weigh how vigilante they are in supporting the effects these wars are having on the welfare of out troops and their families.

While stumping for veterans in Iowa, Sen. Barack Obama, who voted against the Iraq war supplemental funding bill, faced critics, who charged him with not supporting the troops. Obama responded that the best way to demonstrate support for troops is putting programs in place to support them. "When our veterans come home we want to do more than slap a yellow sticker on the back of an SUV,'' Obama said. “We want to honor their service with health care if they get hurt and support for their families.'' Obama noted in his speech to Iowa veternans that there is no comprehensive plan to prepare for a soldier's return and one-third of the troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological problems.

Obama’s Democrat rivals, John Edwards and Sen. Hillary Clinton, also stumped for veterans in Iowa last weekend and addressed the need to focus more attention on veterans’ health care. All three of these candidates have addressed veterans’ health care issues on their campaign websites:

Barack Obama:Honoring Our Veterans

John Edwards:Sacred Contract with Our Military and Veterans Community

Hillary Clinton:Fulfilling Our Promises to Veterans

After perusing the rest of the Democratic candidates’ web sites, the only other candidate to specifically address veterans’ health care is Dennis Kucinich.

Of the GOP presidential hopefuls, the only candidate to address veteran’s health care issues on his website is John McCain ( “Commitment to America’s Service Members: Past and Present”), the only veteran among all the candidates running for president. Most of the GOP candidates have taken an aggressive, hawk stance on the war in Iraq thus far, however, only one of them is openly addressing the inevitable consequences of this stance, at least not on their campaign websites. Ironically, it’s these very same candidates who have attacked the Democrat hopefuls for not supporting the troops.

The Bush administration has drawn fire from both sides for not having an “exit strategy” before going to Iraq, and now, four years later, our wounded troops returning from the theaters of war are seeing that the same holds true on the this end as well.

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