Etched into the entrance of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is a phrase from President Abraham Lincoln's 2nd Inaugural Address: "To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan." With these words, President Lincoln pledged America's solemn obligation to care for the men and women who have honorably served this country.
It is disappointing that President Obama, a student of Lincoln, is considering a proposal that would allow the VA to bill a veteran's private insurance for the cost of caring for a service-connected injury. This is also surprising in light of the record increase in veterans' health care funding in the President's budget and repeated assurances during his campaign about making veterans a priority.
The VA now covers the full cost of medical injuries related to military service and bills third-party insurers for non-service related injuries. If a veteran goes to the VA to treat strep throat, for instance, his or her personal insurance is billed. However, if that individual suffers a Traumatic Brain Injury in Baghdad, the VA covers the cost of caring for this injury.
The notion that the VA may abdicate this responsibility to the men and women who have served in uniform has sparked outrage among veterans, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest organization representing VA workers. And with good reason. This proposal forsakes a sacred promise to our veterans, the promise that we will care for them in return for their service.
If enacted, this policy could result in disabled veterans facing higher premiums or losing private health insurance entirely. For the 1.8 million men and women like me who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, this idea is dead on arrival. The cost of war should not be shifted onto the backs of disabled veterans, who have already paid more than their fair share.
Small business owners, many of whom are disabled-veterans themselves, might not be able to keep pace with increased health care premiums for their employees. As these small business owners know all too well, the single biggest cost burden today is skyrocketing health care expenses. And as thousands of veterans return home to the toughest job market in decades, many potential employers would surely think twice about hiring a disabled veteran if they knew that the cost to pay employees' health care premiums would rise.
The Administration may defend a third-party billing proposal as a cost-saving mechanism. While we are all concerned about the economic difficulties the country is facing, we cannot allow our veterans to bear the brunt. They have already shouldered enough of a load; over 600,000 of them have served more than one combat tour, taking an emotional, economic, and physical toll on them and their families. If the President and the Office of Management and Budget want to cut costs, they should focus on Wall Street, not at the VA.
In the coming years, with the new surge of tens of thousands of veterans returning home, there could not be a more critical time to heed Lincoln's words and honor our men and women in uniform. This country founded the VA for the purpose of caring for those who served and sacrificed and we must ensure that it continues to fulfill that duty. Our nation cannot go back on its commitment to these warriors and their families.
Crossposted at IAVA.org.
UPDATE: Good news! The President has decided not to move forward with a third-party billing proposal. With this critical decision, the Administration upheld our sacred trust with America's veterans.
We're extremely encouraged by this news; the President is quickly proving himself to be a committed leader on veterans' issues. The record increases for VA health care in the President's budget and the First Lady's commitment to serving military families demonstrate their appreciation for the sacrifices our servicemembers and their families have made. With this issue resolved, we look forward to working with the Obama Administration on addressing the challenges facing new veterans, including timely implementation of the new GI Bill, homelessness, and the alarming rates of mental health injuries.