WASHINGTON – The aging population of veterans,rising health care costs and injured soldiers returning from the war in Iraq are not a good combination for Veterans Affairs hospitals.
“There's not enough money. That sounds like kind of a cop-out,but it's the truth,” said Cathy Wiblemo,the American Legion's deputy director for health care.
As part of the Bush administration's plans to deliver care more efficiently,three hospitals in Pennsylvania,Ohio and Mississippi were closed in the last two years,and thousands of higher-income veterans were denied access to the system. At the same time,new hospitals are planned for Florida and Nevada.
While Sen. John Kerry agrees with President Bush that it's important to provide veterans with the best care available,his campaign offers a different strategy.
Bush's plan is revamping the system to provide more care to the sickest and poorest veterans,bring VA facilities closer to their homes and consolidate inefficient hospitals. Kerry supports a mandatory funding formula that would provide more money to the system.
The VA system includes more than 160 hospitals and hundreds of outpatient clinics. Of the country's 25 million veterans,7 million are enrolled in the system and about 5 million use it.
Megan Hauck,deputy policy director for the Bush campaign,said the president plans to spend $1 billion over the next two years opening the two new hospitals,156 clinics,four spinal cord centers and two sight and blindness rehab centers.
The reclassification of veterans,which has already taken place,expanded care to 2.5 million more veterans and eliminated the average six-month wait to process a disabilities claim. This backlog affected 432,000 veterans in 2000,she said.
“Our focus and the core VA mission has always been on those with service-related disabilities,those who need the special care of the VA and those of low income,” she said. “The president implemented a priority scheduling system so that the sickest veterans are getting care first.”
But it also denied access to the VA system to thousands of veterans,something the Kerry campaign says should never happen.
“We're at war. There is no veteran who ought to want for anything in regards to health care,” said Rick O'Dell,57,Virginia coordinator for Veterans for Kerry.
Wiblemo said higher income veterans were denied access because of budget shortfalls,even though some have a yearly income as low as $25,000.
The budget for the VA system has grown 41 percent over the last four years,but higher medical costs are forcing hospitals to cut benefits,including raising co-pays.
“We are big supporters of the VA and its quality health care when the veterans can get in. It's the access issue that we many times have a problem with,” Wiblemo said. She added the quality of health care has risen in the last four years.
The Kerry campaign says the only way to ensure that all veterans get the care they deserve is to provide the VA system with mandatory funding,which would rise with inflation,O'Dell said.
The Bush campaign disagrees.
“The President believes we need a flexible funding stream,because he has had the ability to really make an impact on VA health care funding,” Hauck said.
She said mandatory funding only considers eligible veterans. “As new veterans enter the system,you have less money per veteran,” she said.
The American Legion does not endorse either candidate,but does support mandatory funding. Wiblemo said an estimated 1.2 million veterans will be denied access to the system by the end of the year.
Hauck said the Bush administration plans will not only provide enough money but will also better serve the needs of veterans.
“There is a real commitment to care for American's veterans and making sure that they have modern improved medical centers and clinics and things like that. This is the focus of the president and he'll continue to do that,” she said.