Pentagon says veterans benefits hurtful to national security

Funding for programs like veterans’ education and job training, health care, pensions, VA housing and the like are “hurtful” to national security, Pentagon official David Chu said. Chu was defending a new round of cuts during a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal.

As private sector health care costs skyrocket, veterans are turning more and more to the military’s health insurance program, Tricare. Retired service members account for half of the people covered by Tricare, whereas just five years ago they accounted for only 40 percent. The Bush administration wants to find ways to stem this tide — none of which have anything to do with keeping private sector insurance affordable.

The slow rate of VA spending growth enforced by Bush and the congressional Republicans over the last four years won’t cover growing deferred benefits, such as education, housing, retirement, health care and so on, promised to current service members or that are supposed to be available for new enlistees.

In the last two years, Bush ordered the closing of several Veterans Administration hospitals in different parts of the country, pushing waiting lists for medical services for veterans as high as six months for about 230,000 vets. These closings followed in the wake of the congressional Republicans’ drive in 2003 to cut $15 billion from VA spending over the next 10 years.

President Bush plans to slash veterans’ health care benefits by over $900 million and veterans’ housing programs by $50 million in 2005 alone, according to an Associated Press story about a leaked White House Budget Office memo.

A Center for American Progress analysis said, “President Bush’s 2005 budget would increase prescription drug co-pays from $7 to $15 for many veterans. In 2002, the co-pay went from $2 to $7.” This co-pay increase would have the biggest impact on “near-poor” veterans whose incomes are just high enough to require that they pay the new premium.

The Pentagon plans to reduce deferred benefit packages and increase one-time cash awards for new enlistees in the hopes of reducing, even eliminating, long-term benefit programs.

In fact, the Republicans are so desperate to cut veterans’ benefits they have started attacking fellow Republicans who want to preserve current benefit levels. The Wall Street Journal reports that “the House Republican leadership took the unusual step of stripping New Jersey Rep. Christopher Smith of his chairmanship of the Veterans Affairs Committee” for pushing “so aggressively for veterans’ benefits that he at times threatened to oppose their spending plans and President Bush’s unless more retiree benefits were included.”

The Wall Street Journal attributes the fact that the Republicans haven’t been able to cut more from the VA budget to the work of large veterans’ lobby groups such as the Military Officers Association of America, the American Legion and Vietnam Veterans of America who have consistently blocked cuts and have pushed for expanded programs and spending.

The Bush administration and congressional Republicans lament the fact that increasing entitlements promised to veterans have forced them to limit the growth of spending for questionable missile systems and other weapons programs. New funding for their illegal war on Iraq, they claim, is also in jeopardy as long as so much new military spending is set aside for veterans’ programs for the 28 million people who sacrificed their time and lives in the U.S. military.

The Republicans’ effort to cut veterans’ benefits is just another sign of the attitude of the “compassionate conservatives” toward the vast majority of people in this country. They feel that the very rich are entitled to hundreds of billions in tax cuts, but do not feel the least twinge of guilt in forcing veterans to forego the benefits and services promised in return for their sacrifices.

This week Bush announced his request to Congress for another $80 billion, bringing the total spent on his war to at least $280 billion.

Opponents of Bush’s war know that it has undermined national security, making Americans the target of terrorism more than ever before. But Bush wants you to believe that the real threats to national security are retired veterans who need food, shelter, and medical care.

Joel Wendland (jwendland@politicalaffairs.net) is managing editor of Political Affairs.