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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, May 21, 2001

Military Update
Key lawmaker opposes 'either/or' medical choice

By Tom Philpott

Military Update focuses on issues affecting pay, benefits and lifestyle of active and retired servicepeople. Its author, Tom Philpott, is a Virginia-based syndicated columnist and freelance writer. He has covered military issues for almost 25 years, including six years as editor of Navy Times. For 17 years he worked as a writer and senior editor for Army Times Publishing Co. Philpott, 49, enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1973 and served as an information officer from 1974-77.

Rep. Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J., new chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, wants veterans hospitals and clinics to expand access to care and broaden their range of specialty services, particularly with VA-led advances in treatment of Alzheimer's disease and other mental-health disorders.

In shaping that kind of agenda for his committee, Smith suggested he's not supporting a controversial Bush administration proposal to force career military retirees with service-connected disabilities to choose between using the VA's or the military's health system, but not both.

"There are some areas where the VA really has dominance, particularly with some of the specialty care," Smith said. "It would be a shame if it was an either/or proposition."

President Bush's 2002 budget request calls on Congress to require that all military retirees eligible for care through both the military and at VA hospitals and clinics "enroll with the agency of the retiree's choice and obtain care exclusively from that agency's health care system."

Smith said the House Armed Services Committee, rather than his committee, would get the forced-choice proposal to act upon. But Smith said his "gut sense" is he won't support it if it comes up for a floor vote. Indeed, if Smith gets his way, areas of specialty care in which VA is "unsurpassed" will expand, "particularly in the mental health area."

The 2002 budget blueprint agreed to by House-Senate conferees in early May accommodates several major initiatives that Smith's committee approved or is looking to support for 2002. These include plans to add $1 billion for veterans health care, on top of $1 billion more in the Bush budget; authorize $550 million more over two years for emergency repair of VA hospitals and clinics; provide a sharp stepped-increase in Montgomery GI Bill benefits, raising the monthly $650 to $800 next year and $1,100 by 2004. This would be enough to cover tuition and books for the typical public college.

Another bill that cleared Smith's committee and the full House — the Veterans Opportunities Act of 2001 — would boost a variety of VA services, from burial benefits to maximum coverage allowed under the Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance program.

Smith also supports a proposal by Anthony Principi, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, to help relieve a backlog in disability claims by hiring 900 more claim processors. Still to be determined is whether any of these initiatives will get money from the appropriations committee. The Senate then could have its own ideas for VA health care, education and other benefits.

Smith said he wasn't surprised to see House-Senate conferees on the budget resolution shelve a Senate plan to lift the ban on simultaneous receipt of both full military retirement and VA disability compensation. The Senate merely raised retiree expectations, Smith suggested: No one has a plan to pay the $40 billion cost, over 10 years, to end the ban.

He also is skeptical of proposals that would allow service members to transfer GI Bill benefits to children or spouses. Congress wants veterans to use education benefits to meet personal goals and improve job opportunities. Too many, if given the chance, would help spouses or children instead and thereby lessen their own growth opportunities, Smith said. That defeats the purpose of an "adjustment" benefit.

Comments and suggestions are welcome. Write to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA 20120-1111, or send e-mail to: milupdate@aol.com.