White House

Vets recoil at idea of using insurance for service injuries

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is considering a plan to make veterans use private insurance to pay for treatment of combat and service-related injuries.

The proposal would be an about-face on what veterans think is a longstanding pledge to pay for health-care costs that result from their military service.

In a White House meeting Monday, veterans groups apparently failed to persuade President Barack Obama to take the plan off the table.

“Veterans of all generations agree that this proposal is bad for the country and bad for veterans,” said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “If the president and the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) want to cut costs, they can start at (ailing insurance giant) AIG, not the VA.”

Under current policy, veterans are responsible for health-care costs that are unrelated to their military service. Exceptions in some cases can be for veterans without private insurance or who are 100 percent disabled.

The president spoke Monday at the Department of Veterans Affairs to commemorate its 20th anniversary and said he hoped to increase aid by $25 billion over the next five years. But he said nothing about the plan to bill private insurers for service-related medical care.

Few details about the plan have been available, and a VA spokesman did not provide additional information. But the reaction on Capitol Hill to the idea has been swift and harsh.

“Dead on arrival” is how Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state described the idea.

“When our troops are injured while serving our country, we should take care of those injuries completely,” Murray, a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, told a hearing last week. “I don’t think we should nickel-and-dime them for their care.”

In separate comments, Republican Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri said the nation “owes a debt to the veterans who fought and paid for our freedom.”

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said at the hearing where Murray spoke that the plan was “a consideration.” He also acknowledged that the VA’s proposed budget for next year included it as a way to increase revenue.

But Shinseki told the Senate committee that “a final decision hasn’t been made yet.”

For veterans, that was little comfort.

“When a man goes and defends his country and gets injured, and then they want your insurance to pay, that’s wrong,” said David Gerke, 60, a Vietnam War veteran and retired postal worker from Kansas City. “When we went into the service, we were told our medical needs…would be taken care of for the rest of our lives.”

Veterans say that the costs of treating expensive war injuries could raise their insurance costs, as well as those for their employers. Some worried that it also could make it more difficult for disabled veterans to find work.

Several veterans groups had written Obama last month complaining about the new plan.

“There is simply no logical explanation for billing a veteran’s personal insurance for care that the VA has a responsibility to provide,” the heads of several veterans group said in their letter to Obama.

Despite the current economic crisis, they wrote that “placing the burden of those fiscal problems on the men and women who have already sacrificed a great deal for this country is unconscionable.”

A spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, a trade association, said Monday it would evaluate any proposal that the administration put forth. But “we don’t have a position on it at this time,” said Robert Zirkelbach.

Many veterans had high expectations for Obama after years of battling the Bush administration over benefit cuts and medical concerns such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

But the VA’s decision to float a potential change in its policy of paying for service-related injuries could signal a quick end to the honeymoon.

“It’s a betrayal,” said Joe Violante, legislative director of Disabled American Veterans, which signed the letter to Obama. “My insurance company didn’t send me to Vietnam. My government did. The same holds true for men and women now fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s the government’s responsibility.”

Gerke was a 20-year petty officer in the Navy in the Vietnam War. He helped load Sidewinder missiles and 500-pound bombs onto F-18s.

He came home with a bad back and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other injuries. But the government honored its pledge and has paid for his health care.

Now he’s worried, especially for the injured service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Let’s face it. (The VA) needs the money,” Gerke said. “But why should disabled vets be paying that price?”