Old soldiers sue Rumsfeld over cuts in medical benefits

WASHINGTON—It was, I suppose, as inevitable as bluebonnets in a Texas spring: On the eve of Memorial Day a class-action lawsuit was filed against Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on behalf of more than 1,000 residents of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in our nation's capital.

The complaint of the plaintiffs—whose average age is 76 and whose average term of service is over 20 years in the military—is that Rumsfeld is responsible for "drastic cuts" in their medical services.

The lawsuit, titled Cody et al. v. Rumsfeld, was filed this week in Federal District Court in Washington. It demanded that Rumsfeld restore all the medical benefits that have been reduced or eliminated.

It states that during the last two years, in the name of cost-cutting by the Defense Department, the veterans at the old soldiers home have faced the closure of the facility's primary treatment room with its 24/7 physician on duty; closure of the on-site pharmacy; elimination of on-site X-ray services; a shortage of even basic medical supplies; and elimination of mortuary services.

The final blow seemingly was last week's announcement that Rumsfeld had included nearby Walter Reed Army Hospital on the list of facilities to be shut down and done away with under Base Realignment and Closures.

The lawsuit says the old veterans were promised "a model retirement community" when they moved in and were told that under the law the Defense Department was required to provide residents with "high-quality, on-site medical and dental care."

It says with the closure of the primary treatment room, anyone needing medical care after 4 p.m. has limited options: a phone consultation with a nurse or an emergency call to 911. Should an emergency require off-site treatment, the residents are required to pay for transportation themselves.

With closure of the on-site pharmacy and X-ray facilities, the veterans are sent to Walter Reed Hospital for their pills and pictures. When that closes, they say, they will have to travel farther to commercial facilities.

Homer Rutherford, a retiree with 23 years' service on Air Force medical evacuation flights in Europe, Korea and Vietnam, said: "The residents are extremely upset and, quite frankly, confused by this treatment. We feel betrayed."

Steve McManus, financial officer of the retirement home, said that changes had been made in medical and dental services for the veterans, but he declared that the changes are for the better.

He confirmed that pharmacy services are now contracted out, but said that when a doctor writes a prescription for one of the veterans it is phoned to the contractor who delivers it during three-times-a-week deliveries. He added that in the past inspectors had criticized the home for failings in its pharmacy operations.

McManus said five physicians' assistants' jobs had been eliminated, but two nurse-practitioners work in their place, and four full-time physicians are available. "You know, four doctors for 1,000 patients isn't all that bad now, is it?"

Maybe so, but it sure is hard to look good when old veterans started calling you Scrooge and mistake your carefully thought out "alignment and adjustment" for penny-pinching. The government isn't going to win this one, public relations-wise. No way.

The Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington is one of two operated under auspices of the Defense Department. The other is located in Gulfport, Miss. Ninety-five percent of the retirees served in a combat theater—the majority of them World War II veterans, with Korean War veterans next, and a small minority veterans of Vietnam.

The Bush administration and DOD have had their problems in the past with the nation's veterans, and they seem only to be getting worse.

Veterans groups complain that the new chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Republican Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana, wants to cut Veterans Administration health care and disability benefits for many of the veterans the VA begged to enroll only a few years ago.

Buyer says VA health care should focus on indigent veterans and veterans whose disabilities are due to combat injuries. Annual fees for enrolling in VA health care for everyone are being increased.

The fact that the Republican caucus threw out a friend of veterans, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and installed the blunt-spoken Buyer in his place didn't make the Republican Party a lot of new friends among veterans. The lawsuit against the administration by folks in the old soldiers' home is just the finishing touch.



Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young