Veterans' vote may hinge on benefits
By SARA FRITZ, Times Staff Writer
Some say President Bush hasn't fulfilled a promise to improve the health care system for those who served.
Published March 8, 2004
WASHINGTON - Dan Hill, a retired Vietnam vet who lives in Tampa, still remembers the promises George W. Bush made to veterans when he was running for president.
In 2000, Bush pledged to improve veterans benefits and eliminate the backlog of men and women seeking health care at VA facilities. His platform emphasized that the GOP is "the traditional advocate of America's veterans."
A lifelong Republican, Hill said he is so angry with what he sees as Bush's failure to keep his promises to veterans that he's thinking about voting for John Kerry, a fellow Vietnam vet who's the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
"I'd rather have the devil I don't know than the devil I do know," said Hill, 59. "President Bush is going to have a lot of trouble winning veterans' votes this year."
Hill's decision to vote for Kerry was based almost entirely on Bush's record on veterans benefits. He said he thinks a president who has sent men and women into war in Iraq has a responsibility to care for them when they come home, injured or not.
But he admits that other issues have swayed him, too - including the question of whether Bush fulfilled his own duty to the National Guard during the Vietnam War era.
"As far as I'm concerned, he's a deserter, and I'm not the only one who feels that way," said Hill, who keeps in touch with other veterans using many Web sites devoted to veterans issues.
There is no public polling data to demonstrate how pervasive Hill's views about Bush are among the nation's 25-million military veterans, nearly 2-million of them in Florida.
But Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota thinks that Bush's record on VA spending has disappointed veterans enough that this traditional GOP constituency may help the Democrats defeat Bush.
"I am increasingly confident that veterans are turning more and more to Democrats," Daschle recently told reporters.
Veterans groups agree that their members are up for grabs in November.
David E. Autry, spokesman for the Disabled American Veterans, predicts the upcoming election will be "the first time in recent history that veterans benefits have become an issue in a presidential campaign."
When Democrats and Republicans discuss Bush's new budget for veterans programs, they almost seem to be talking about two different documents.
House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, emphasizes that total spending on veterans has increased from $38-billion to $60-billion, or about 58 percent, over the past decade. That amounts to $2,400 per veteran in 2004, compared with $1,300 per veteran in 1995, he says.
In addition, Nussle notes the president and the Republican-controlled Congress decided last year to begin phasing out the penalty veterans pay when they receive a disability check as well as military retirement pay. Previously, all retirement pay was reduced by the amount of the disability payments.
Rep. Edward L. Schrock, R-Va., calls these "historic gains for veterans . . . absolutely monumental."
Democrats, meanwhile, note that Bush's fiscal 2005 budget promises a nominal increase of about $520-million in veterans spending over the current year. They said that amounts to a $273-million cut because it does not keep up with rising expenses.
"There is no increase for inflation, no increase for extra caseloads," notes Rep. John M. Spratt, D-S.C. "We fall farther and farther behind as we go out in time."
The Department of Veterans Affairs has estimated it needs an average annual increase in funding of 12 percent to 14 percent to keep pace with rising costs. Instead, the president is recommending an increase of just 2 percent.
Furthermore, Bush's critics note that much of the promised increase would be funded by a $250 user fee on middle-income veterans. It also would be funded by an increase in co-payments for prescription drugs from $7 to $15, which Congress is not likely to approve.
"I'm just not sure those co-pays are going to pass," said Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville. Without that income, she noted, veterans benefits would have to be even smaller.
Democrats also are promising to give veterans full "concurrent receipt," meaning that no veteran's retirement pay would be reduced because he or she is also receiving disability pay.
Even before the 2005 budget cuts take effect, Democrats say, there is a long waiting period for many who are seeking medical care in veterans hospitals because of previous budget cuts.
At the VA hospital in Gainesville, said Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., several hundred veterans have been forced to wait more than 30 days for their initial doctor's appointment. At the VA clinic in Fort Myers, he said, 600 veterans have been waiting more than a year for specialized services such as audiology.
At Bay Pines VA Medical Center, officials say veterans routinely wait 30 days for an appointment with their primary care physician and six months for an appointment with a specialist. Those injured in combat since 1998, however, are moved to the head of the waiting list. And after being diagnosed by a specialist, some veterans say they have waited nearly a year for surgery.
Veterans Secretary Anthony Principi said his agency is already caring for 9,700 people who served in Iraq and about 1,400 who served in Afghanistan. He indicated the administration intends to handle the increased workload not by spending more money, but by making his department more efficient.
"The president, I know cares deeply. . . .," Principi said. "The fact of the matter is, we're doing more today for our veterans, and I'm very proud of that."
Meanwhile, Republicans such as Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., are angry that veterans are not strongly supporting the GOP. "Only in Washington," said Shays, "when you're basically spending so much more, do people call it a cut."
Research funds needed
When leaders of a number of veterans groups testified before the House Budget Committee last month, Nussle asked them to explain specifically how newly disabled veterans who have served in Iraq would be treated under the president's budget.
One such veteran is Johnnie Williams, 21, of Tampa, whose legs are paralyzed as the result of a Humvee accident in Iraq last May 5.
After his injury, Williams was sent to a hospital in Germany, then to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, and finally to James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa.
He was discharged about four months ago and is living with his family in Tampa. He purchased an automobile with government money, and the VA equipped it with special hand controls.
"Johnnie has received good quality care," said Ramond Bruce, a benefits advocate for the Paralyzed Veterans of American in Tampa, who assisted Williams in obtaining his care. "Everything has been fine," Williams said.
In response to Nussle's question, John C. Bollinger, PVA's deputy executive director, said Iraq veterans such as Williams with spinal cord injuries do not have trouble getting access to care. Tampa has one of 23 VA spinal cord injury centers.
Nevertheless, he said, soldiers such as Williams, who desperately hopes that he will be able to walk again, could be hurt by proposed cuts in VA research funds. He said Bush has proposed to cut the budget for medical and prosthetics research by $22-million in fiscal 2005.
"The VA has done so much in the area of spinal cord injury research and paralysis," Bollinger said. "The promise is out there. It benefits all Americans and it's a shame that the administration has chosen to reduce that funding."
Richard A. Jones, national legislative director of AMVETS, added that some Iraq veterans may also be deprived of vocational rehabilitation and employment as a result of the president's budget cuts, which propose to eliminate hundreds of VA personnel who assist in these departments.
"When we have these veterans returning from Iraq and other places, and they're putting greater demands on the system and VA has been working very hard to improve all of its benefit lines, this budget cuts the personnel back, and that's what got them into trouble to begin with," Jones said.
FLORIDA VETERANS BY THE NUMBERS
1.9-MILLION veterans live in the state, about 320,000 of them in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area.
409,589 people received health care in the state's VA facilities.
254,468 Florida veterans and survivors collected disability compensation or pensions.
$3.7-BILLION was spent by VA in Florida to care for veterans.
28,400 veterans and their families received GI Bill payments for their education.
220,277 owned homes purchased through VA home loan guarantees.
8,765 were interred in Florida's four national cemeteries.
- SOURCE: Department of Veterans Affairs; numbers as of 2002
[Last modified March 8, 2004, 01:20:29]
Veterans' vote may hinge on benefits
World and national headlines
Election 2004Lost but not forgotten: their candidate, his cause
Kerry, Kucinich plan rallies in Florida today
HaitiEscape of deportees heightens Haiti tension
Gunmen kill six at rally in Haiti; Marines fire back
Nation in briefWater taxi captain questioned
ReligionGay Episcopal priest takes over diocese
World in briefN. Korea links arms, U.S. pullout