Veterans, lawmakers blast White House for benefits proposal

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 17, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Angry advocates for veterans will return to the White House on Thursday to try to talk the Obama administration out of cutting benefits.

The administration is weighing whether to make veterans use private insurance to pay for treatment of combat injuries and other service-related health problems.

The controversial plan has ignited a firestorm in the veterans community, and a meeting Monday with President Barack Obama failed to tamp it down. The same veterans groups that met with Obama have been asked to go back to meet with his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, for more discussions.

Several veterans advocates suggested that the White House was unprepared for the backlash to its plan from veterans and their supporters on Capitol Hill and might be looking for a graceful exit.

"Why pick a fight that's going to consume time and energy that doesn't need to happen?" said Doug Vollmer, the associate executive director for government relations for the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said no decisions had been made about changing benefits for veterans. He said they "can be assured that the president understands any concerns that they would have."

The administration's plan to save money by cutting veterans' benefits remains sketchy, but Obama told the advocates seated around the table Monday in the Roosevelt Room that it would save $540 million.

Veterans currently are responsible only for health-care costs that are unrelated to their time in the military, with some exceptions.

To veterans and their advocates, government-financed health coverage is their "third rail" of politics. They believe that upon enlistment, the government pledged lifetime coverage for injuries sustained on the battlefield or elsewhere.

Reversing that, said Rick Weidman, the director of government relations for Vietnam Veterans of America, "cuts to the quick of the covenant between the people and those who take the step forward, pledging life and limb, often at great cost, in defense of the United States."

Still, veterans advocates said they were open to discussing alternatives, which is likely to be the topic Thursday. One could be to have some veterans use their private insurance for treatment of service-related injuries but without requiring co-payments.

Another could be allowing the Department of Veterans Affairs to bill Medicare for an eligible veteran's coverage. Currently, if a veteran who's eligible for Medicare and the VA uses the VA, the agency isn't allowed to bill Medicare for the costs.

"This, we believe, would more easily meet the president's financial goal," American Legion Commander David Rehbein said in a statement.

Apart from the tempest over private insurance, several veterans advocates said that so far Obama had supported their concerns. His proposed 2010 budget of nearly $113 billion for the VA was more than $1 billion higher than the plan that they'd been pushing.

However, many said that they were surprised by the ham-handedness of the private insurance effort because it seemed that no one in the White House or the VA took into consideration how veterans would react — or Congress, where several members have called the plan "dead on arrival."

Paul Rieckhoff, the executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, likened it to the problems that former President Bill Clinton faced in 1993 at the outset of his presidency when he proposed the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military.

"The president needs to drop this," Rieckhoff said of Obama. "The longer we wait, the more it hurts his relations with the VSOs" — veterans service organizations — "and with vets. This is a no-brainer. We were all shocked. We don't understand why he's picking this fight."

VETERANS GROUPS THAT MET WITH OBAMA ON MONDAY

The American Legion

AMVETS (American Veterans)

Blinded Veterans Association

Disabled American Veterans

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America

Jewish War Veterans of the USA

Military Officers Association of America

Military Order of the Purple Heart of the U.S.A. Inc.

Paralyzed Veterans of America

Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States

Vietnam Veterans of America

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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