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Jon Soltz

Jon Soltz

Posted April 29, 2009 | 09:01 AM (EST)

100 Days On Veterans: A Reason To Hope


There's only so much a President can do in 100 days, and we don't know what a President will do in the remaining 4-years-minus-100 days, so it is hard to say a whether a President has been a success or failure. However, when looking at the needs of veterans at the end of the Bush administration, and whether those needs have been fulfilled, it's tough to say that President Obama's first 100 days haven't been incredibly encouraging.

When it comes to veterans care, most issues fell under three categories as the President took office - funding, confusion, and lack of access. In all three areas, while there's a ton to still do, there's been dramatic improvement in the first 100 days.


FUNDING OF VETERANS CARE

This area, above all, is the shame of the Bush administration. The Department of Veterans Affairs was consistently underfunded by the Bush Administration. The low-point came when then-Secretary Jim Nicholson had to come groveling to Congress for more than a billion dollars in emergency funding, admitting that the administration had not prepared for the boom in returning veterans in need of care, as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The underfunding had dramatic consequences across the board - from research and treatment into Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to the shameful commonplace practice of veterans having to duct tape their prosthetic limbs, because the VA couldn't get them decent ones.

President Obama's budget for the VA errs on the side of caution - funding the department over the amount determined adequate by the Independent Budget (the budget offered by the nation's Veterans Service Organizations), and increases funding by $25 billion over the next five years.

CONFUSION AMONG VETERANS

Money, of course, doesn't solve every problem. One thing that money really couldn't solve is the mass confusion veterans face in terms of their care - especially as it pertains to the transition from the care of the Department of Defense, to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

To that end, the President announced that the DOD and VA would work together on a system of permanent electronic medical records, that follow a servicemember from the moment they enter the military, through their service, and into their life as a veteran.

The gap between DOD care and VA care was more like a chasm for many veterans in need of care. Brian McGough, who is now legislative director for VoteVets.org, suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq. The gap in his care between active and veteran status was so big that he had to apply for unemployment insurance, because of the delay in getting the disability benefits he was due.

Of course, there are still mazes of bureaucracy that veterans have to go through all too often, and confusion about how to go about getting care and benefits. Those things still have to be tackled. But, to address the DOD-VA gap in the first 100 days is huge. Far too many Presidents ignored it for their entire two terms.

LACK OF ACCESS

This might be the area that's getting the least press, but is the most important. Care with the VA has been elusive to many veterans, both because of restrictions on eligibility, and geographic location. Again, this isn't an issue that is "case closed" yet, but the President has made incredibly great strides.

First, the Department of Veterans Affairs is starting to reopen care to those veterans who were deemed to be "Category 8" - that is, those whose incomes were said to be too high. That classification was supposed to be a temporary budget move, aimed at saving money under President Bush. Problem is, it become permanent. Now, Secretary Shinseki has voiced support for opening up the VA to Category 8 veterans, and there is money in the budget to gradually bring them back into the system.

Second, for many veterans, just getting to a VA center is difficult. To that end, much of the money in the stimulus is going towards building new veterans care centers. For instance, in Colorado, a new 200-bed stand-alone veterans hospital will be built to replace the current facility serving Denver and the surrounding areas, a new facility will be built in Colorado Springs, and eight veterans health care facilities will be built in rural areas in the region. Once completed, 92 percent of Colorado veterans will be no more than an hour's drive from a veterans care facility.

All of the issues above have been facing veterans for years. Though many of the issues predated President Bush, they were exacerbated as veterans often faced the budget ax.

Of course, this doesn't even get into the fact that some of the moves the President made will create fewer veterans in need. By setting a course to drawdown in Iraq and lower the number of troops we have in warzones, and announcing the end of the Stop Loss policy, which has led to extreme mental strain for our servicemembers, President Obama will actually see the load of veterans in need coming to the VA dramatically reduced.

The President also made a dramatic gesture towards veterans, by opening up the return of fallen troops, so that the honor bestowed on them can be shared by the nation. For too long, those who lost their lives were brought back in the dead of night, not allowed to be seen. That was a shame. It means a lot to those of us who served in these wars that the nation will now share in the return ceremony.

There's much more for this President to do before we make any dramatic pronouncements about his record on veterans. But, this much is clear to those of us who served. For the first 100 days, we couldn't ask for a whole lot more.