Serving Vets Where They Are

Our nation's veterans symbolize the brave, selfless military sacrifice that has kept our country safe from hostile forces. Their sacrifice has earned veterans the thanks of a nation and a commitment that the federal government will tend to their long-term health care needs.

But since the creation of the veterans health care system, public officials have paid more homage to bricks and mortar than to fashioning a system flexible enough to respond to veterans' needs. Now veterans are paying the price.

The problem is simple: Retired veterans are picking up roots and moving to new parts of the country. But federal health dollars, facilities, and personnel aren't moving with them.

The result is overcrowded facilities, long lines, and unsatisfactory care in growth states - and increasingly underutilized facilities in states with declining numbers of veterans.

The numbers paint a vivid picture. Since 1980, more than 10 states have had growth in veterans populations. Florida and Arizona have registered a growth rate of nearly 25% during that period.

Many other states have seen veterans leave in droves. In that 15-year period, Pennsylvania's veterans population dropped by more than 12%; New York's by almost 20%.

Veterans health care benefits have not kept up with these dramatic changes. The VA continues to base its annual appropriations requests on old budgets and demographics.

For example, despite the massive increase in Florida's veterans population, the state has the lowest rate of hospital beds per 1,000 veterans in the nation. And while Florida has the greatest number of veterans who were severely disabled in the course of military service, the state ranks 46th in health-services funding per veteran. Arizona and other growth states have been similarly disadvantaged by the VA's reluctance to challenge the inequitable status quo.

In February, the General Accounting Office published a troubling report. It notes that a veteran who moves from New York to Florida will get 83% less care solely because he moved.

Ask George LaMora what this means in real terms. Five decades ago, he served in an amphibious landing force that won crucial victories - and suffered heavy losses - at the Marshall Islands, the Marianas, and Guam. The government honored him with three battle stars and told him he was entitled to the veterans health care system. Yet after saving for years to buy a home in Florida, Mr. LaMora was forced to return to New York when the Tampa veterans facility couldn't treat him adequately.

It's time to fix the system.

Any remedy must start with the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. The agency deserves credit for its effort to develop a plan ameliorating some geographic disparities. Yet two years later, the plan still has not been put into motion.

One way to change that is the McCain-Graham Amendment, which mandates that the VA implement a plan for fair allocation of resources to ensure that veterans have similar access to care, regardless of where they live.

We do not intend to give up the fight. If Congress doesn't act on McCain-Graham, we may need to look at other alternatives.

One possibility to explore would be the establishment of an independent, nonpartisan process to review the veterans health care system. This process might help us channel resources from underutilized health facilities to those in high-growth, high-need areas.

Whatever solution we adopt, the bottom line is this: The current VA health care system is badly in need of repair. By reforming it, we can reaffirm our collective commitment to our veterans. They deserve no less.

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