Veterans Pay the Price
Lead Editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer
Support the troops? Whatever that mantra means to you, it must include a commitment to give injured troops quality medical care.Support the troops? Whatever that mantra means to you, it must include a commitment to give injured troops quality medical care.
But the federal government is not living up to its promise to those men and women who are risking their lives for us in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thousands upon thousands of wounded soldiers and Marines are returning home to substandard and understaffed medical facilities.
Shabby conditions, including mice and mold, at an outpatient building at Walter Reed Army Medical Center were brought to light last month by the Washington Post. Congressional hearings show that the problems extend well beyond one Army hospital in Washington. The Veterans Administration is failing wounded veterans, too, with patient backlogs and facilities in need of repair.
These problems have been years in the making. Lawmakers are having one of their Casablanca moments, professing shock and outrage, but both parties are culpable.
Congress includes no greater advocate for veterans than Rep. Christopher Smith (R., N.J.). He became chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee in 2001.
"You can't do health care on the cheap," Smith said. But Smith did his job of finding funds too well. By 2004, he had angered top Republicans, especially then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, who wanted to limit spending. When Smith wouldn't back down on adding an additional $1.2 billion for VA medical services, DeLay stripped him of his committee chairmanship.
"He was able to literally fire me," Smith said. "I wasn't going to be a potted plant." Today, Smith shakes his head when he hears fellow lawmakers expressing shock about substandard care for veterans. In 2003, Smith held several hearings on a presidential task force's recommendations for improving veterans' health care. "It was completely ignored," Smith said.
He tried to defeat an appropriations bill three years ago because it lacked sufficient money for veterans' medical care. About 100 Democrats and Republicans joined him, but his bid was defeated by lawmakers from both parties. The lawmakers who voted with Smith were punished by party leaders by having their pet "earmarks," or hometown spending projects, stripped from the budget.
"Now it's 2007, and there's this 'Gee whiz' factor," Smith said. "Talk is cheap. Where were they on that vote?"
So far, President Bush is showing that, even if he really didn't mean his rhetoric about supporting the troops, he takes negative publicity very seriously. Top Army brass were fired, and Bush appointed a bipartisan task force to investigate.
Yet the president's plans for the future include budget cuts at the Veterans Administration. The budget he submitted to Congress last month calls for cutbacks in hospital and medical care for veterans in 2009 and 2010, after a proposed 9-percent increase in 2008.
The VA's spending for health care has been rising by about 10 percent per year, as more wounded veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The best-case scenario here is that Bush does not really expect the VA budget to be cut two years from now, but was playing a numbers game to achieve a "balanced" budget within five years. In other words, his budget numbers weren't really heartless toward veterans, just cynical toward taxpayers.
For once, let's be honest: Fixing this shameful betrayal of our troops will cost money. Lots of it. Every ordinary American who is not willing to pay a fair share of what's needed to do the job, raise your hand.
Hmmm. No one stuck up a hand. Remember that, Congress, the next time you're tempted to play games with veterans' health care.