On Jan. 14, in order to keep the government "open," Congress finally passed the FY 2014 Omnibus Spending Bill, but buried in the details was a provision to cut some of the $6 billion in military pensions due 82 percent of military retirees under 62. Fortunately, the President restored the cuts when he signed the bill into law. Regrettably, this episode was just one more in a long list of actions, or inactions, taken by our government to deprive veterans of the benefits they earned, deserved and are entitled to.
Over the last 50 years the service men and women who fought America’s wars have far too often gotten "the short end of the stick" when it came to medical care. When the wounded began returning from the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, the gross unpreparedness of the military to care for its own was revealed. In 2007, the Washington Post reported that some buildings at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center were "rat-and cockroach-infested, with stained carpets, cheap mattresses, and black mold, with some soldiers reporting no heat or water in the facility." In order to obtain medical treatment and benefits, the typical soldier was required to file 22 documents with eight different commands. All too often, Walter Reed was unable to even find their records.
As recently as January 13, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), castigated the Department of Veterans Affairs for the "infamous" backlog of disability claims that leaves many disabled veterans waiting months for their paperwork to be processed. The VA website showed that, as of January 11, 2014, 686,681 cases were pending of which 403,761 were considered a "back log," meaning that they exceeded the VA’s own action time of 125 days. At that time, the Los Angeles backlog was 568 days; New York, 496 days and Chicago, 483 days.
Anticipating legislative action, four of the nation’s leading veterans organizations proposed a budget plan calling for increased spending on veterans programs in FY 2015 and beyond. A statement from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans and Paralyzed Veterans of America, called for $72.9 billion in funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs. One of the largest items asked for was $3.9 billion in new construction, $2.7 billion more than the amount provided in the FY 2014 spending approved in January. Their proposal also called for $611 million for medical and prosthetics research, an increase of $25 million compared to 2014. Spending for the Veterans Benefits Administration would increase by $44 million compared to the 2014 level, jumping to $2.5 billion for 2015. Direct funding for VA health care would rise to $61.1 billion for an increase of $2.3 billion compared to the Obama administration’s 2015 advance appropriation request.
Much of what was contained in the veterans’ organizations proposal was included in the biggest veterans spending bill in 10 years. Authored by Bernie Sanders, chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, the bill contained more than 140 provisions costing $21 billion over 10 years. But it went down to defeat 56-41 when it failed to achieve the 60 procedural votes needed to keep it alive. Opponents said it was too large, too costly and would burden a Department of Veterans Affairs already struggling to keep up with promised benefits.
At a news conference on February 26, Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, announced the proposed FY 2015 DOD budget would require military retirees and some active-duty family members to pay more for Tricare insurance, deductibles and co-pays. Hagel did not offer specifics on how much the rates would increase, but said military health benefits would "remain affordable and generous" despite the additional costs. Duty, honor and valor again betrayed.
Andrew Schoerke, of Shaftsbury, is a member of Veterans for Peace.