Military Update: Obama drops veterans' insurance proposal; more showdowns loom
By TOM PHILPOTT | SPECIAL TO STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 21, 2009
President Obama won style points from veterans’ service organizations this week even as he was forced, under heavy fire, to withdraw his plan to have the Department of Veterans Affairs bill veterans’ health insurance for the cost to VA of treating service-connected medical conditions.
“The issue should never have come up [and] he got a black eye out of it,” said David W. Gorman, executive director of Disabled American Veterans Wednesday. “But we came out…very, very pleased that he had recognized the issue, he has listened to us, and he has taken heed of our advice.”
More disputes are likely between a White House struggling to impose new restraints on federal spending, and advocates for military members and veterans who have borne the brunt of two long and difficult wars.
When the president’s full budget request for 2010 is released in late April, the battleground shifts to Capitol Hill and fights are expected over several personnel issues including future military pay raises. Obama also might follow the lead of his predecessor, and listen to his top military adviser, by seeking higher TRICARE fees for working-age military retirees.
This week, however, the cost-savings target was veterans’ insurance. Obama’s plan drew stiff bipartisan opposition on Capitol Hill and gave Republicans a wedge to try to separate Obama from veterans despite his surprising budget plan to raise overall VA spending next year by 15 percent.
Even comedian Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, poked fun at Obama’s insurance idea, suggesting the administration next might want to sell to corporate naming rights for different military medals.
On Monday, feeling the heat, Obama took the unprecedented step of hosting a White House meeting with leaders of 11 veterans groups who had sent the president a letter Feb. 27, calling his third-party insurance collection plan for service-related conditions “wholly unacceptable.”
“I cannot remember -- and I’ve been doing [veterans’ advocacy work] for 35 years -- any sitting president ever inviting us over and sitting down with us to talk about a policy-related issue,” Gorman said. “So we were very grateful for that. It showed us a lot.”
Obama explained that insurance companies collect premiums for veterans’ coverage but get a break when veterans use VA for service-related conditions. He then asked VSO leaders for their views, and got an earful.
“Everybody was opposed to the idea for a lot of reasons,” said Gorman. “The fundamental one was that the foreign policy of the United States sent us war. These are the disabilities we’ve incurred. It’s the federal government’s moral and legal obligation to take care of them, not Blue Cross and Blue Shield.”
Obama indicated he wouldn’t go forward without VSO support. But when he and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki left to visit with employees at VA headquarters, Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, asked the VSOs to go back and consider ways to reduce VA costs enough to fill a $540 million hole that would be left in the budget if the president pulled his proposal.
The VSO met two days later with Emanuel and told him that they all agreed it was not their job to find savings for the VA.
“He was disappointed,” said Gorman, who served as spokesman for the group at that meeting. “But I told him we would be more than happy, in fact, would relish the idea of coming back and talking about issues and ideas before they become a policy, a practice or a recommendation in the budget.”
That afternoon, when VSO leaders met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Democratic colleagues, she told them Obama was withdrawing his proposal. The leaders gave the news a standing ovation.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama had wanted to “maximize the resources available for veterans” but deferred to concerns raised by the VSOs that his plan could affect families’ access to health care.
Glen Gardner, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the episode showed Obama got bum advice but that he “is willing to sit down and talk about issues. That has to be good for the veteran.”
At the Pelosi meeting, Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, noted that Obama’s budget proposes ending the ban on concurrent receipt for more disabled retirees -- those with fewer than 20 years service. He warned that the cost will make it very difficult to find money for other new programs, or to block TRICARE fee increases if they are proposed in the president’s budget.
The administration will seek a 2.9 military pay raise for next January, enough to match wage growth in the private sector. If Congress agrees to the raise, it will end at 10 a string of annual raises set at least a half percent above private sector wage growth. Personnel chiefs for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps told a House hearing that 2.9 percent is big enough.
Retired Navy Vice Adm. Norb Ryan, Jr., president of the Military Officers Association of America, disagrees. He said Monday that the string of bigger raises for the military should continue for five or six more years until a pay gap with the private sector, estimated at 2.9 percent, is fully closed.
“With the 6th anniversary of the Iraq invasion, with uniformed leaders saying we’ve got another decade of persistent conflict ahead of us, why would you abandon such a successful, responsible, measured way of going after a goal [of pay comparability] and stop on the 20-yard line,” Ryan said.
He also warned against TRICARE fee increases, which Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, endorsed in our interview in January.
MOAA and other service associations support legislation that would block the Secretary of Defense from raising TRICARE fees in any year by more than the percentage increase in the January pay raise.
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