Daring to reform veterans' aid

''It's foolhardy to sit here and not look at it before it hits you in the teeth.'' That's the way a US Veterans Administration spokesman refers to the need for realism about a potential new skyrocketing in already costly veterans' programs mandated by Congress. American taxpayers ought to demand this realism from Congress and the administration if they don't want to get hit in the pocketbook.

The unusual news is that the chief of the VA, Robert Nimmo, is venturing ahead of them into the no man's land of reform. He is asking for ideas, suggestions, evaluation of priorities from the veterans' organizations, Congress , and the public. So far hardly anybody has saluted, though Congress is said to be willing to listen to Mr. Nimmo -- and ask him to document his allegations of political pressures on locating VA facilities.

Mr. Nimmo has dared to call for a major reexamination of the VA's five-year medical construction plan. For example, he wants every project for fiscal year 1984 and beyond to be rejustified by ''new and defensible'' -- nonpolitical -- criteria before getting started. These projects amount to $2.7 billion.

And he is warning that the VA may have to discontinue the no-strings hospital care now available to all veterans over 65. Soon 12.3 million World War II veterans, whose average age is 62, will become eligible. It is not hard to imagine what that could do to a VA budget that is already some $25 billion, one of the biggest sacred cows in Washington.

Americans defer to no one in their respect for the men and women and their families who have worn their country's uniform. But extra benefits for veterans who are not in need become harder to justify when budgets are being cut for citizens who are in need. Thus it becomes necessary to consider whether the eligibility for benefits should be revised to ensure that funds remain available for those who genuinely need them.

One way to save would be to raise the age for automatic hospital care from 65 to 70, to require a means test, or to prescribe some combination of the two.

Over the past two decades the number of VA hospital beds has fallen from 121, 000 to 80,000. But Congress has in effect said thus far and no farther, though 12 of the 172 VA hospitals have vacancy rates of 30 percent or more.

President Reagan has left the VA budget virtually untouched. Yet one of his conservative supporters, the Heritage Foundation, has estimated more than $8 billion could be saved if benefits were confined to veterans they were intended to help. If Mr. Reagan declines to take a lead, it is up to Congress to rekindle its oversight concern and see whether such estimates are correct. Are benefits going to those Congress never intended? Are these benefits threatening the ability to serve the veterans who are supposed to be served?

Unlikely questions to bring up in an election year perhaps, especially when 30 million veterans and their families add up to perhaps 100 million citizens. Yet all taxpayers, veterans or not, have an interest in such questions, and someday it will be good politics as well as good sense to answer them.

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