Benefits: balancing needs and costs

With military-like efficiency, warning signals are already being flashed out from the nation's veterans organizations to members around the United States. The message: Lobby Congress to hold the line on possible cuts in programs benefiting the nation's 30 million or so former service personnel.

Veterans groups have no illusions about the political battle facing them. It will be tough, given the increasing need to trim federal outlays to help reduce budget deficits projected to reach $200 billion or more in the years just ahead. The Reagan administration is studying ways of reducing funding for veterans' services as part of a larger effort to trim outlays for middle-class entitlement programs - including farm subsidies, student loans, and federal credit programs. And budget officials are seeking ways to make future eligibility for such programs - indeed, most federal safety-net or welfare programs - contingent on need. That would mean a greater reliance on means tests of one type or other.

Obviously, cutting such politically popular programs as veterans benefits will require special care. Veterans groups have clout in each and every legislative district in the United States. But there is an issue besides the question of political influence. This one involves the promises and long-range commitments of government itself. To what extent should commitments made by previous generations of Americans (and lawmakers) be altered substantially over the course of time as economic circumstances change?

The administration is reportedly weighing nominal charges for veterans using Veterans Administration health-care services. Budget officials are also considering whether to make benefits contingent upon financial need and limit or curb services for health problems unrelated to service experience.

At present veterans are automatically eligible for medical care on request from the Veterans Administration, once they reach age 65, and provided space or care is available. There is no means test.

The challenge for budget officials involves demographics. More and more veterans are reaching retirement age. Health-related costs continue to climb, to some $9 billion this year, up from $8.5 billion last year. By 1990 costs are expected to reach $14 billion.

Lawmakers will need to keep in mind the issue of fairness as they deal with this challenge. Commitments must not be lightly broken. At the same time, it seems only fair that some form of means test be administered, so long as no veteran who truly needs services is denied them for want of resources. There is another aspect to all this: Many people who are not ''veterans'' as such may also have ''served'' their nation in one way or other during past conflicts. That is particularly true for World War II, when many women, for example, worked on assembly lines or in positions once held by men, often at genuine inconvenience to their families. So, yes, benefits should continue to be provided to veterans who truly need them. But at the same time, it would not seem unreasonable for veterans who have ample financial resources to pay nominal fees for services rendered.

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