House bill would give nation's veterans agency a seat in the US Cabinet

A bill that would give Cabinet status to the Veterans Administration, now the largest independent agency of government, is scheduled to be taken up by the full House of Representatives today. More than half the House has endorsed the concept and passage is expected. In the Senate, where hearings are set for February, there is bipartisan support for the proposed Department of Veterans Affairs. President Reagan has also endorsed the concept.

Advocates for the nation's 27 million veterans hope the change will increase the visibility and voice of the America's veterans and the VA's benefit programs.

Veterans programs have been under budget-cutting pressure in recent years, despite their reputation for having advocates of strong influence in Washington. President Reagan's most recent budget proposal would have caused significant layoffs of VA medical staff.

While the VA's budget has risen steadily every year, critics say it has not kept up with inflation or the cost of medical care. R.Jack Powell, director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, says his group calculates that VA annual spending, when adjusted for inflation, has actually declined by $1 billion under Reagan.

Even without Cabinet status, the VA is a huge component of government. It's bigger than all but the Defense Department in number of employees. It's the biggest health-care system in the Western world, with 172 hospitals and hundreds of clinics and nursing homes. If it were a company, it would be the single largest home-mortgage guarantor and the fifth largest life insurer. It also operates 111 cemeteries.

Although the idea of elevating the VA has been met with some quiet resistance, virtually no public opposition has been raised in Congress.

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