Despite Obama's Pledge, Veterans Not Ready to Support Democrats’ Health Care Overhaul

By Fred Lucas | August 26, 2009 | 6:47 PM EDT

President Barack Obama (AP Photo)

( – Veterans groups are skeptical about legislation to overhaul health care, despite efforts by President Barack Obama and Democratic lawmakers to allay fears that certain benefits will be taken away or changed under the reform proposal.
“There still are concerns, and there will be until we see what the final legislation is,” Herb Rosenbleeth, executive director for the Jewish War Veterans of the USA, told “We want to make sure career veterans and military are certainly taken fully care of.”
Some of the concerns center around veterans who could face a 2.5 percent income tax penalty if coverage through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) – such as TriCare, the health care system serving active duty military, and TriCare for Life, for retired military – are not deemed acceptable under the legislative language. Another concern is seeing their care moved from the VA to another federal department.
Six veterans groups expressed “grave concerns” about the health care legislation in a July 30 letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Rosenbleeth said those concerns still stand, adding that it is important that health care for veterans continues to be run by the secretary of Veterans Affairs.
“Those avenues provide care that would be specific to the veteran, the blind veteran, the paraplegic,” Rosenbleeth said. “They have the capability to provide the specialized care that veterans need.”

Department of Veterans Affairs seal

The GOP is not ignoring these concerns. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, in an op-ed this week in The Washington Post, cited preserving veterans care as part of a GOP seniors’ health bill of rights.
“Finally, we need to protect our veterans by preserving TriCare and other benefit programs for military families,” Steele wrote. “Democrats recently proposed raising costs for the TriCare for Life program that many veterans rely on for treatment. Republicans support our veterans and believe that America should honor our promise to them.”
President Obama and congressional Democrats insist that new health care legislation will not affect veterans’ health care benefits, but veterans’ officials said they are not yet ready to support the proposal, specifically the House plan that passed three committees and could be ready for a floor vote when Congress returns.
“We just want to make sure that the VA’s position is spelled out, that TriCare for Life is taken care of when the final bill comes out. That’s some of the things we want to see in there,” Hershel Gober, legislative director for the National Order of the Purple Heart of the USA, told
The Democratic health care plan would establish a government-run health insurance plan (“public option”) to compete with private insurers, establish a separate health care exchange that would subsidize insurance purchases from the private market; mandate that employers provide coverage to their employers; mandate that individuals have insurance; and prohibit private insurers from denying coverage.
Speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars earlier this month, President Obama told the VFW crowd in Phoenix, “Since there’s been so much information out there about health insurance reform, let me say this: One thing that reform won’t change is veterans’ health care. No one is going to take away your benefits. That is the plain and simple truth.”
However, the president was not giving veterans the full story, said Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), ranking member on the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
“What President Obama did not say is how the proposed health care reform bill could subject veterans to a 2.5 percent individual penalty tax for failure to have ‘acceptable coverage’ as required by the bill,” Buyer said in a statement.
“Despite what the president has said, the bill could still negatively affect veterans and has not been fixed. I will continue to work to ensure that the bill is amended so veterans could not be subject to this tax or adversely affected by any of the other provisions in the bill,” Buyer added.
Page 167 of the 1,018-page House health care reform bill calls for a 2.5 percent income tax penalty for individuals who are not carrying “acceptable coverage,” but page 172 has language that seems to exempt those who are on Medicare, Medicaid, veterans benefits, and members of the armed forces from paying the tax.
Nonetheless, the House Energy and Commerce Committee rejected an amendment by Buyer that explicitly stated that veterans benefits would be acceptable and not be subject to the tax penalty.
“Until the floor amendment is made, our concerns are not fully resolved,” said Disabled American Veterans National Commander Raymond Dempsey, in a statement, adding that other amendments by Buyer that did pass addressed many of their concerns.
Those amendments included one that would ensure that veterans care remains under the VA and the Department of Defense. Another amendment states that veterans with VA health benefits can still enroll in a health care exchange or get private insurance without facing a penalty.
The July veterans’ letter to Pelosi said, “As currently drafted, we would oppose this legislation because it could limit the health care choices for veterans, increase the cost of health care for veterans, deny coverage to dependents of veterans, and threaten the quality of health care offered to veterans through the VA health care system.”
It was signed by representatives from American Veterans (AMVETS), Blinded Veterans Association, Disabled American Veterans, Jewish War Veterans of the USA, Military Order of the Purple Hearts of the USA and Vietnam Veterans of America.
“Enrollment in VA health care, especially in the case of service-connected disabled veterans, should never become a bar or obstacle to the receipt of benefits that non-veteran citizens receive in this or any other bill,” the letter said.
“Any national reform legislation must make certain that all veterans, including all of those enrolled in VA health care, remain eligible to enroll in any exchange-participating health benefits plan offered under H.R. 3200 through the Health Insurance Exchange, or in any other public or cooperative health insurance program,” the letter said.
A statement from the office of House Committee on Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) asserted that the veterans’ concerns were addressed.
The committee statement said the bill “states that ‘members of the armed forces and dependents (including TRICARE)’ and those who receive VA care will be considered as having acceptable minimum coverage – in other words, veterans will not be subject to the 2.5 percent penalty if they are enrolled in TRICARE or VA care.”
But the position of veteran groups has not changed.
The government should pursue other options to reduce health care costs rather than increase fees on our military beneficiaries, or make health care more expensive, or less accessible, AMVETS spokesman Jay Agg said.
“Nothing has changed. We still have the same position as reflected in the letter from the military coalition, which we signed,” Agg told “We still feel just as strongly that health care for veterans is just the cost of doing business for the Defense Department and the VA.”