Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Serve veterans who have served us


Whatever their political differences, Americans appear to agree that our military veterans have earned the best benefits our government can provide.

Yet government has fallen short of that goal for decades, especially when it comes to veterans' medical care, with long waits, poor service and bureaucratic hassles. Chief among many reasons: a lack of money.

"Funding is always an issue," Secretary for Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi, in town for the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention, told the Enquirer editorial board Monday.

That might seem surprising, since his department's funding has risen 40 percent, to $65 billion, since 2001 - with a projected $5 billion jump next year. But Congress has played a game here. Previously, only those with service-connected disabilities - about 2.8 million of America's 25 million veterans - were eligible for the full spectrum of services. Congress decided that beginning in 1998, all 25 million veterans would be eligible. In a time of rapidly escalating health care costs, even a 40 percent budget increase isn't enough to meet the extra responsibility.

But there are signs of change. The department has reduced the backlog of disability claims and shortened waits for initial appointments. It is in the midst of a modernization program to better serve veterans' shifting needs and demographics.

Most welcome is an attitude that appears to reject the old bureaucratic habit of finding ways to delay or deny benefits. Recently, the department found that veterans of the first Gulf War were contracting ALS - Lou Gehrig's disease - at a higher than normal rate. After some study, Principi declared it a service-connected disability for all the affected veterans. "It has to be based on good science," Principi said, "but once we find a correlation I won't hesitate to service-connect" an ailment.

"You have to give the benefit of the doubt to someone who served," added Principi, a decorated Vietnam veteran. "How we treat people coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan will dictate how this agency is viewed in the next 10 to 20 years."

This reflects a philosophy we hope becomes ingrained in the system: They served us. We must serve them.

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