By Howard Wilkinson
Enquirer staff writer
President Bush will speak to Veterans of Foreign Wars convention delegates here today about U.S. troop realignment, but they are likely to be most interested in what he has to say about veterans' health care.
And they will expect the Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry, to address the same issue when he appears before the weeklong convention Wednesday.
"Health care is at the top of the agenda, always has been and always will be," said John Furgess, the Vietnam veteran from Nashville who will take over as commander-in-chief of the 2.6-million-member veterans' organization later this week. "Everybody here is looking forward to hearing what they have to say about it."
In recent years, a rising chorus of veterans' voices - including that of the VFW, which maintains a large lobbying unit on Capitol Hill - has been saying that the Department of Veterans Affairs has been running a health care system that is underfunded, overworked and often unable to meet the needs of veterans.
In many ways, the VFW and other veterans organizations, such as the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans, are the VA's greatest allies, leading the lobbying fight in Washington for more funding.
It is one reason why the VA has a highly visible presence at this week's VFW gathering in the Sabin Cincinnati Convention Center and why it has teamed up with the VFW to put on a health fair in Exhibit Hall A.
The health fair offers the veterans free blood screenings, blood pressure tests, eye exams and body-fat tests, along with a host of booths offering health information, including several from the Cincinnati VA Medical Center. It is open every day to the nearly 15,000 veterans and their spouses.
Sunday afternoon, Allen Ghimenti of Chicago, a combat-wounded veteran of the Vietnam War, walked among the health fair booths with some of his buddies from Illinois posts.
Ghimenti has a VA rating of 100 percent disability from the wounds he suffered when he was in the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam; he walks with a cane and says he makes three trips to the North Chicago VA hospital every week.
He said he and many other veterans he knows are frustrated by the VA health system, particularly the long waits many of them have had to receive care in an overburdened system.
Ghimenti offered one example of how the system works. He said he flew to California in June to see his sister; the airline lost his luggage and he was without eyeglasses. After returning to Chicago, he called the VA to schedule an appointment for eyeglasses and was told he couldn't get in until October.
"So I just have to stumble around until then," he said.
Ghimenti's friend and fellow Vietnam veteran, Walter Michalski of Chicago, has a multitude of health problems.
None of them are service-related, but he depended for years on VA health care.
"I finally just gave up on them," Michalski said. "It was too frustrating dealing with the system."
Michalski said the system is "run by politicians instead of by veterans."
"They are spending millions every year building new buildings, which is money that could go directly to the health care for the veterans," Michalski said.
Both veterans said they would be listening carefully to what Bush and Kerry have to say this week.
What they - and their national organization - want to hear is a commitment to mandatory funding for VA health care.
Furgess said mandatory funding is needed so that the VA doesn't "have to compete with every other federal program for dollars."
Kerry has said he supports mandatory funding. According to Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi, it is something President Bush is reluctant to do, but willing to discuss.
To Furgess and most other VFW members, there should be little debate about health care for veterans.
"It's something that was promised to the men and women who put on this country's uniform," Furgess said. "We just want to see that the promise is kept."
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