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Bill Orton
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Red Meat for a Blue State

The President's Lawyers Fight our Troops on Health Care

by Bill Orton

February 06, 2008 -- Americans fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan already have it tough. They don't need the president's lawyers fighting them, too.

Roadside bombs are ripping apart U.S. soldiers and marines. Snipers ambush patrols and kill our young men and women.

Troops must now spend 15 months in the crosshairs of death under tour extensions ordered because the military is under such strain.

Asked during his confirmation hearings what is his biggest concern, the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs said simply, "I worry about the Army," where recruitment is down, enlistment standards are falling and the suicide rate is at its highest since Vietnam.

The Marine Commandant told Congress that Iraq threatens the long-term viability of the corps, as Marines are meant to be a forward expeditionary force, not an occupying army.

Thousands of citizen-soliders are serving a third or fourth tour overseas, because this president ordered National Guard troops into combat for the first time since the Korean War.

In six years, more than 1.5 million Americans have served in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Over 4,400 Americans are dead and more than 28,000 suffer lifetime physical wounds. The numbers would be far higher if not for body armor, which thankfully has saved thousands who might otherwise have been killed or maimed by slugs or schrapnel.

It seems that everyone but the president understands these Wars are destroying our armed forces.

Yet, the logical increase in spending on military health care isn't happening.

For U.S. Rep. Bob Filner (D-San Diego), who chairs the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, the added health care costs and mental health services are the price of fighting a war.

But apparently, the President and his lawyers don't agree.

According to a news report in the San Francisco Chronicle, the president's lawyers are arguing in federal court that health care, and particularly mental health services, are scraps and bones that the administration alone decides when to toss down to our returning veterans.

This may be the most appalling development yet of the Bush Wars.

Reports the Chronicle, administration lawyers argued last week that hundreds of thousands of injured troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are not "entitled" to any specific mental health or other medical care services.

A soldier with a concussion from a roadside bomb blast or a marine suffering post traumatic stress disorder from a brain injury can be turned away for care at a veterans hospital, say the lawyers, because only the administration can decide whether and how to spend money on health care for veterans.

Military health care is just one more corner to cut. Put another way, if you're the President, official policy is to support the troops... until they come home injured, then kick 'em when they're down.

According to the Chronicle, government lawyers asked U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Conti to dismiss a proposed class action suit filed on behalf of 320,000 to 800,000 veterans or their survivors that accuses the government of illegally denying mental health treatment to returning troops.

Administration lawyers claim that Congress left decisions about who should get health care, and what type of care, solely to the department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

The lawyers argued that a law providing five years of care for veterans from the date of their discharge establishes "veterans' eligibility for health care, but it does not create an entitlement to any particular medical service."

The law, said the lawyers, entitles veterans only to "medical care which the secretary (of Veterans Affairs) determines is needed, and only to the extent funds ... are available."

In an earlier Jan. 10th ruling that allowed the suit to proceed, Conti said federal law entitles veterans to health care for a specific period after leaving the service, rejecting the government's argument that it was required to provide only as much care as the VA's budget allowed in a given year.

The Jan. 30th showdown in Conti's San Francisco courtroom came just two days after the President challenged the congress in his State of the Union Address to enact recommendations by the national commission on wounded warriors chaired by former Sen. Bob Dole and HHS Secretary Donna Shalala. Those recommendations called for a dramatic increase in mental health and long-term care for injured troops.

So as the ink flowed in the drafting of the President's final state of the union address, his lawyers fought to allow the VA to ditch the very sorts of care recommended by the Dole-Shalala commission.

Yet aside from rare pieces like found on page A8 in the Chronicle (and CMR's willingness to press the matter), the issue is as hidden as calls for national sacrifice are rare.

The invisible wounds suffered by returning troops came to light thanks largely due to Congressman Filner, who's held hearings and blasted the Administration for failing to take seriously the dramatic rise in costs associated with the permanently injured soldiers and marines.

"To me, part of the cost of war is dealing with the veterans," Filner said in a speech last year.

Filner talked about a Marine who went to a Minnesota veterans hospital and announced that he was having suicidal thoughts. The hospital worker told the Marine that he would have to wait three to four weeks to see a physician.

The Marine left, returned home and killed himself, Filner said.

Filner's persistence paid off, as the issue caught fire in the congress and a dramatic expansion in the VA's authority to spend on invisible wounds went to the president and was signed into law.

But if the proposed class action suit is correct, the VA is arbitrarily denying care and benefits to wounded veterans, forcing them to wait months for treatment and years for benefits and failing to provide fair procedures for appealing decisions against them.

Physical rehabilitation and emotional reconstruction for our injured troops? Naw. Think forgotten Vietnam vet begging for money. This is where the President and his lawyers are headed.

A solider who starts a week on patrol may finish it as a veteran, airlifted home and given a stack of complicated forms for medical care while military officials demand repayment of signing bonus paid out upon reenlistment.

Even when an issue like mental health services catches fire, this president believes he alone is empowered to subvert to overwhelming will of the congress.

In the vaccuum that is the war on terror, only active duty military personnel and their loved ones are called upon to sacrifice for America, yet the rich get money handed to them. Where's the sense of patriotism in that?

In the same speech in which he asked congress to adopt the Dole-Shalala recommendations mirroring the care that is already being ignored, the president demanded that pre-war tax cuts be made permanent.

So warriors can't get medical care, but the richest reap an unpatriotic bonanza from pre-war tax policies that the President wants made permanent.

For someone who led us into war based on lies, partisan rancor and mission drift, this may be the lowest he has yet sunk.

Originally in California Majority Report


Bill Orton is a writer and historian living in Long Beach, California.