White House caves on veterans plan, but what was it thinking?

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 18, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Wednesday abandoned a controversial plan to make veterans use private insurance to pay for costly treatments of combat-related injuries.

Stung by the angry reaction to the proposal, the administration made the decision after a meeting between officials from 11 veterans advocacy groups and top White House officials.

"Our voices were heard," said Norbert Ryan, the president of the Military Officers Association of America. "They made the right decision on this."

The plan would've reversed a longstanding policy of providing government health coverage for all service-related injuries. Few details emerged beyond its reported savings of $540 million, however.

Most veterans use private insurance only for health problems unrelated to their military service.

"This is a moral issue for us," said Paul Rieckhoff, the executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

What was most puzzling to experienced activists and others was that the White House floated the idea in the first place. Several said that the administration came off as politically tone deaf to the importance of the issue.

"They've grabbed hold of the 'third rail' and they shouldn't have done this," said Rick Weidman, director of government relations for Vietnam Veterans of America. "If they had asked anyone informally, we would have informed them, 'Are you kidding? All hell will break loose.'"

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that the intent of the plan had been to "maximize the resources available for veterans."

He said, however, that President Barack Obama, who met with the veterans groups on Monday in their first trip to the White House, recognized their concern that it could "under certain circumstances, affect veterans and their families' ability to access health care."

A meeting on Wednesday afternoon with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel broke up without a resolution. By the time many of the same veterans advocates had reached Capitol Hill for a previously scheduled meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, however, the drama was over.

Pelosi said that the president, en route to California, had just called her from Air Force One to say that the plan was off the table.

"We are pleased that he has heard our concerns and taken them to heart," said David Gorman, executive director of the Disabled American Veterans.

Veterans groups were quick to praise the president for his proposed budget, which they said would provide more money for veterans' health care than ever before. They said they looked forward to working with the White House in the future.

The groups scored a second victory on Wednesday with the Pentagon's decision to phase out involuntary enlistments, also known as "stop loss." Rieckhoff called it a "huge day for veterans."

The 11 veterans groups had written Obama last month to complain about the insurance plan.

He invited them to the White House on Monday, where they met for an hour. Obama called for further discussions but didn't drop the idea.

Outrage quickly grew in the veterans community and beyond. Media superstars across the spectrum from Jon Stewart to Rush Limbaugh expressed disbelief at the idea, and it resonated across political and cultural borders.

In a tide of phone calls and e-mails, angry veterans and family members wondered if the administration's next move might be to start charging military families for funerals.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans said that making veterans pay for treatment of their war wounds and other service-related health problems violated the nation's "sacred duty."

Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, the chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, pledged not to advance legislation to do what the White House had proposed.

In a letter to Eric Shinseki, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, Republican Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri said, "This idea is irrational and callous to the almost 63,000 veterans living in my district and the more than half a million living in Missouri."

Across the country, 25 million Americans have served in the military.

Blunt called it "clearly an affront to the VA's mission statement reflecting President Lincoln's promise 'to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.'"

The VA has had little to say about the plan. The only comments came a week ago when, under questioning before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, Shinseki said that the plan was "a consideration."

Apparently no longer.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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