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Senator says all veterans deserve health care benefits

August 08, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Sen. Barbara Mikulski met with local veterans Thursday to bolster support for her $1.8 billion plan to block proposed health care deductibles and co-payments.

Mikulski, D-Md., called President Bush's proposed budget for the Veterans Affairs health care system "skimpy," saying it does not cover veterans' needs.

As a result, the administration has suggested deductibles and co-payments for veterans who do not have service-connected disabilities and who make more than $24,000 a year.

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The VA recently closed enrollments to other veterans in similar circumstances.

Mikulski, the senior Democrat on the subcommittee that funds Veterans Affairs, said all veterans deserve health care benefits regardless of their income.

Mikulski met with a dozen patients of the Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic in Hagerstown on Thursday morning.

Korean War veteran Harold DeLauter, 72, of Boonsboro, told Mikulski that he recently began relying on the VA system because his former employer, Pangborn Corp., shut down its manufacturing operation in Hagerstown.

Job circumstances forced Carol A. Isnard, 60, of Hagerstown, to begin going to the clinic after she moved to Hagerstown a year ago. Isnard served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War.

Without the VA's help, she said she could not afford the medication she needs.

"I have to admit I was very embarrassed to go," she said.

Mikulski corrected her.

"This is not charity. This was a promise made," Mikulski said.

The VA's outpatient clinic in Hagerstown has about 4,000 patients, with a growth rate of about 50 to 60 per month, said Administrator Carol Kadle.

Veterans come from as far away as Lancaster, Pa., because there is a waiting list in their area.

Clyde Stair, 74, of Greencastle, Pa., told Mikulski he was exposed to atomic radiation during his military service and now he has cancer.

Stair said the government never followed through on a promise to study veterans in his situation. Mikulski promised to look into the issue.

Charles Reeder, a member of the Maryland Veterans Commission, told Mikulski that local veterans have long wanted a nursing home in Western Maryland.

Mikulski told him that if the state backs the idea, she will fight for federal money. In recent years, the state has rejected the idea because a veterans home in Southern Maryland has empty beds.

Mikulski left little doubt what her first priority will be when Congress reconvenes in September.

"Our battle right now is the battle for the budget," she said.

Mikulski said she'll have to get 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to approve the $1.8 billion increase. As a comparison, the cost of rebuilding Iraq has been estimated at $4 billion.

She urged veterans and their organizations to write to House and Senate leaders in support.

After hearing from veterans who had to drive miles to get health care at VA hospitals, Mikulski pushed for the opening of smaller outpatient clinics. The Hagerstown clinic opened in 1998.

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