Analysis: Veterans push for no-cost plan

By DIANA VU, UPI Correspondent

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America's Veterans


WASHINGTON, Feb. 7 (UPI) -- While the Bush administration made a big push this week to improve healthcare for U.S. military veterans, there seems to be a growing divide between the government and veterans as to whether those who have served in the military should be entitled to healthcare at no cost.

President Bush has requested an $87 billion budget increase for the Department of Veterans Affairs for fiscal year 2008, which would go toward veterans' healthcare and disability services. This new budget proposal represents a staggering 77-percent increase over when the president took office seven years ago.

But although this may be perceived as a stunning coup for America's military veterans, there is still debate over whether the increase goes far enough.

In fact, there is growing tension between the government and veterans over what the country owes them in terms of healthcare benefits, with veterans and their families arguing payback should come in the form of a no-cost government healthcare plan.

"We cannot put our heads in the sand and say (the tension) doesn't exist ... here and there lie communication gaps," retired Maj. Gen. Robert Smith said Tuesday at a government meeting on the issue.

Representing groups like Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion and The Retired Enlisted Association, Smith said veterans are asking for no-cost healthcare because "20 plus years of service was a premium paid, not in money, but by extraordinary personal challenges and sacrifices for America."

However, by law the government is under no obligation to grant veterans free healthcare plans, officials said.

Regardless of how the issue is finally resolved, both sides seem to agree that war veterans have unique healthcare issues that should not be ignored in the debate.

For example, some veterans who served in the Vietnam War returned home to their families suffering from the effects of radiation and Agent Orange, a strong substance used to wipe out plant life, military advocates noted.

In some extreme cases, the effects of these toxic substances left some veterans with bone cancer and Hodgkin's disease.

In addition, a report in the Annals of Epidemiology concluded that military troops who suffer from the increasingly common post-traumatic stress disorder have a higher death risk.

Until the issue of no-cost healthcare for military veterans is settled, the U.S. government is moving to do more for veterans and their families to ease the burden of rising healthcare costs.

For example, the Department of Defense, which oversees veterans' healthcare management, has introduced a program to reduce the costs of prescription drugs at retail stores like Giant and Target. Spending on retail prescription drugs is currently one of the biggest healthcare expenditures at the department, according to agency officials.