VA chairman: In wartime, all vets aren't equal

Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), new chairman of House Veterans' Affairs Committee, says the medical and rehabilitation needs of a new generation of war veterans leave him more certain than ever that Congress erred in 1996 when it opened VA health care to any veteran willing to pay modest fees.

While some veterans' organizations like to create a theme, that a veteran is a veteran [and] there is no difference, "I disagree," 46-year-old Buyer said.

A decade ago, in the wake of a Persian Gulf War that saw relatively few U.S. casualties, the Department of Veterans Affairs went back to worrying about an aging patient population and under-used VA clinics and hospitals, he said.

Those concerns, along with wishful thinking about the VA billing employer-provided insurance plans, led Congress to open VA facilities to veterans neither poor nor disabled.

Time has shown that to be a mistake, Buyer said. Today, the VA has $3 billion in uncollected debt -- for health care rendered, which insurance companies have not paid.

"And we find ourselves now in protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the war on terror all over the world. So, the sense from 1996 that we could open up the VA to protect the bricks and mortar because of a declining population of veterans," Buyer said, is replaced by the reality that we have more veterans now that have to come into the system.

His comments came days after his committee voted to impose a $230-500 a year enrollment fee on 2.4 million veterans in priority categories 7 and 8 -- those who are not poor and have no service-connected disability.

Buyer is a blunt-spoken lawyer and Citadel graduate, who was deployed in the first Gulf War as an Army reserve lawyer. With oversight responsibility now for the second-largest department in government, Buyer said he has three short-term priorities:

• Refocus VA health care on its core constituency of service-disabled, indigent and special-needs veterans.

• Develop a seamless transition process for veterans moving from active duty to VA care. So far, more than 10,000 have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan and as many as 100,000 could have post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.

• Improve VA rehabilitation and vocational training to ensure that even the most severely injured veterans return to rewarding lives.

"For a lot of years," he said, it was, 'Here's your check. Good luck in your life. And if you find it in a bottle, we'll try to get you in a program.' I want the system to be far more personal."

Buyer also said he expects a new bipartisan Veterans' Disability Benefits Commission to review whether Congress went too far on allowing concurrent receipt of military retirement and VA disability payments.

He also expects the commission to consider whether to change the way disability ratings are set or to tighten the definition of service-connected injuries or ailments.

"There is something bothersome in the system where you can have a soldier blow out his knee from a roadside bomb and end up with a disability that's the same as a guy who blew out his knee sliding into home plate at church league softball on Sunday," Buyer said.

"Is that the type of disability system that is just and fair?" he asked.

Buyer said he wouldn't want to assure current veterans with disability ratings that they will be excluded from commission recommendations.

"I think every thing should be on the table," he said.

An idea Buyer said he wants considered is offering lump-sum payments to veterans with disabilities rated 20 percent or less, as settlement of all future compensation claims.

Veterans' organizations that claim that all veterans earned the right to VA health care, and use what Buyer sees as inflammatory rhetoric to knock proposals to raise fees on nonpoor, nondisabled veterans, are abandoning values like duty and sacrifice under which veterans served, he said.

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