Benefits for veterans -- in need

Among lobby groups in the United States, few have had the political clout over the years of the nation's veterans. Given some 30 million former service personnel in the US, it is hardly surprising that the Veterans Administration is now the second largest federal agency with a budget of over $24 billion and a staff that by one count exceeds all other departments except the Pentagon itself. Veterans have won a broad roster of federal benefits that apply solely to themselves and their families, ranging from access to VA hospitals and nursing homes, special job training programs and small business loans, and, of course, fixed-rate, 30-year housing loans. Efforts to directly change that system have repeatedly run into strong opposition in Congress.

Yet, the political unease regarding the very power of that constituency is probably higher than at any time in recent American history - and for solid economic reasons. The issue is not one of taking away the recognition rightly due those Americans who have served their nation and fellow citizens. Rather, the issue is ensuring that VA programs be kept within a sense of proportion at a time when federal social programs in general are being slashed. Also, it seems clear that there is a very real question as to whether the most pressing problems facing the nation's veterans - particularly the new breed of Vietnam-era veterans - are being met (such as a resolution of the whole question about the effects of Agent Orange).

Precisely for these reasons, Congress should take the occasion of President Reagan's nomination of Harry Walters to be the new head of the VA for a careful in-depth look at how VA dollars might be best spent. In that regard, lawmakers might well give special attention to the remarks of outgoing VA chief Robert Nimmo. Granted, Mr. Nimmo leaves his post under a cloud following disclosures that he had spent over $50,000 decorating his office and another $6,000 using his government chauffeur for nongovernment driving. Yet, Mr. Nimmo's blunt appraisals of VA programs should not be overlooked, particularly his contention that millions of taxpayer dollars are being wasted on disability compensation programs.

What must be perhaps better understood by lawmakers is that the VA hospital and disability payments program represents a potential fiscal time bomb - not unlike the special long-range problem of the social security system - because of the unique demographics involved. This year, some 3.7 million veterans will pass their 65th birthday. About a quarter of elderly veterans use VA hospitals or other government health institutions. By the late 1980s, however, close to 7 million veterans will reach 65; by the turn of the century that number will reach 9 million veterans. The potential for increased health or other federal benefits costs will thus be increasing sharply during the years ahead.

Congress, for its part, should consider imposing limitations on access to VA health facilities (such as raising the age for automatic entry from 65 to 70), or restricting access to certain categories of need. At the same time, lawmakers might well consider merging veterans programs with other federal programs, such as job-training programs now administered by the Labor Department.

At a time when federal tax dollars seem particularly precious, there can be little justification for not taking a hard look at Veterans Administration programs to ensure that these dollars are flowing only to those veterans who need the help.

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