Wednesday, August 20, 2003
Veterans plan to exact action at polls
GOP-led House reneges on pledge to pass $3.2 billion for VA medical care
By Dennis Camire / Gannett News Service
WASHINGTON -- Veterans are condemning House Republicans' failure to deliver a $3.2 billion boost for the Veterans Affairs Department that would have shrunk the agency's waiting list for medical care.
"A shameless betrayal" is how AMVETS sums it up.
"A moral outrage," the American Legion said.
"Abominable" is the word from the Non Commissioned Officers Association.
"Veterans have been pushed to the limits," said Joe Violante, national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans. "They're being lied to, and they're not tolerating it."
The broken promise -- the second time in a year Congress has reneged on a pledge to veterans -- has veterans vowing to remember at the ballot box.
"They're saying there has got to be a change made because if there isn't, we're never going to get what we're due," said Richard DeLong, a Vietnam veteran in Lafayette, La.
During April budget debates, the GOP-led House -- under criticism for not putting enough money into VA medical care -- approved a nonbinding budget that promised to increase VA medical spending by $1.8 billion more than the additional $1.4 billion President Bush had requested.
The money would have helped more than 132,000 veterans who wait six months or longer for their first VA doctor's appointment. Although the VA's medical budget has increased $8.3 billion in the past seven years, the agency's spending on each patient has decreased $624.
Last month, House Republican leadership, bowing to Bush administration pressure to curb spending and their own desire for hometown projects, cut the promised $1.8 billion.
Despite failed efforts to add the money back, the bill passed 316-109 with 59 Republicans and 50 Democrats opposing. Of the House Veterans Affairs Committee's 31 members, 20 voted against the bill, including committee Chairman Chris Smith, R-N.J., and top Democrat Lane Evans of Illinois.
The bill's next step is Senate consideration this fall.
"We got fooled, and we got whupped," said Richard F. Weidman, director of government relations for Vietnam Veterans of America. "We are not going to let individual members of this Congress forget this vote."
American Legion national commander Ronald F. Conley said the discouraging part is that the House GOP leadership warned Republicans that pet projects in the bill would be in jeopardy if they didn't vote yes.
"We have the money to pay for a statue of the Roman god Vulcan in Birmingham, Ala. We have money to pay for a bike trail in North Dakota. We have money to fund a Nevada helicopter company that performs Elvis impersonator weddings," Conley said. "And yet we have neither the heart nor the will to ensure that all United States veterans receive the medical care they earned and we owe them."
President Bush may hear more on the issue Tuesday when he is to speak to 13,000 delegates at the American Legion's national convention in St. Louis.
Congress' actions have many veterans talking about political consequences.
"Veterans more and more are beginning to sense a loss of faith and confidence in the administration," said Richard C. Schneider, director of veteran and state affairs for the Non Commissioned Officers Association. "They're no longer willing to be the quiet, accepting veterans that they have been in the past. I think they're actually going to hold some people accountable."
Veterans are talking about increasing turnout at the polls next year, veterans groups say.