Is Trump’s commitment to veterans another one of those “campaign trail promises” that the President is going to leave unfulfilled?
It’s too soon to tell, but one thing is for certain: veterans service organizations will not sit silently as potentially catastrophic changes are made to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
At issue are a number of VA programs that will be cut in order to fund the expensive and struggling Choice program. There is no doubt that fundamental changes are needed at the VA, but there are life-and-death costs associated with each cut made to veterans’ benefits. What programs are getting cut? Why? Everyone involved has the stated perspective of “putting veterans first,” so it can be difficult to understand who is actually advocating for better treatment and care.
VA Secretary David Shulkin has made it clear that he is going to follow the path Congress authorizes. As budget cuts are considered, it is extremely important that mesothelioma victims, 33 percent of whom are veterans, let their elected officials know the true cost of slashing programs which support lifetime treatment and care for service members.
Budget Cuts Stoke Fears Despite Positive Changes at VA
At the end of May, the VA released its budget for the 2018 fiscal year. In the press release, the VA touted the progress it had made in reducing wait-times at their hospitals and decreasing the backlog of disability claims. For disability claims, “Veterans waited, on average, 203 fewer days for a decision than four years ago.” These are promising reforms – it was unacceptable that a veteran would have to wait more than half a year to hear back about whether or not they receive care.
Trump is requesting an additional $3.5 Billion in funding for The Veterans Choice Program, which allows veterans to seek care from a private-sector hospital. Designed to give veterans more options, the Choice Program comes at a high cost. In order to work it into the budget, it looks like older veterans will bear some of the cost-shifting on their backs.
Charles E. Schmidt, American Legion National Commander, described the budget as “absolutely unacceptable.” In a statement released in the wake of the budget, Schmidt outlined the problem with removing funds from one area to another:
“We are also alarmed by the cannibalization of services needed for the Choice program. It is a ‘stealth’ privatization attempt which The American Legion fully opposes. Choice should not be advanced to the detriment of cost of living increases for veterans.”
Both Trump and Shulkin have made promises not to privatize the VA, and so people like Schmidt are making sure they keep true their word. Everyone can recognize that access to care and short wait-times are important. What’s worrisome for some veterans, especially those who have been exposed to asbestos, is that there might be no care to have better access to.
What Programs Are Slated to Lose Funding?
One of the proposed cuts is to end Individual Unemployability benefit payments to retirement-age veterans. This is in addition to another provision that caps working age employability at 62. For older veterans and those thinking about retiring, these changes are drastic. In his statement, Schmidt wondered about the fairness of dropping the age to 62 when many working members of Congress are much older than that.
It’s just mad to treat the injuries and issues that veterans have to deal with as if they disappear at an arbitrary age. In a statement before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, 3 service organizations reminded Congress that lives are sometimes irreparably altered in the line of duty.
The Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) were highly critical of the budget and pressed Congress to “reject any proposals that seek to shift the cost of VA health care or benefits onto the backs of disabled veterans.”
These changes represent a lower quality of life for people who have served. Like the American Legion, these service organizations are “adamantly opposed” to the “round down” cost of living adjustments. For people living on a fixed income, this is terrible news. A “round down” would, they argue, “have the cumulative effect of taking $2.7 Billion away from injured and ill veterans who rely on such payments.”
Veterans who have been disabled during their service do not have a lot of options, and so taking resources away in the name of the Choice Program is both ironic and misguided.
Asbestos Latency Looms over Proposed Funding Cuts
Despite the groundless claims Trump makes about asbestos, the dangers are well known by veterans and their families. Since there is often a long delay between exposure to asbestos and developing cancer, such as mesothelioma, many people do not know they need treatment until decades have gone by.
Earlier this year, a study published by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) indicated that people are still being killed by mesothelioma despite regulatory action. The study found that:
“Among the 96.3% of deaths in 23 states for which industry and occupation were known, shipbuilding and construction industries were major contributors to malignant mesothelioma mortality.”
This is something American veterans know all too well – nearly every ship commissioned by the U.S. military in the 20th century used asbestos. People building and serving on those ships were exposed to deadly fibers, potentially carrying them back into their homes and families on their clothes.
The scope of the damage wrought by asbestos is massive, and there are likely many cases that are still to come. Given that many veterans will not discover the problem until long after they reach retirement age, it is completely unacceptable to cut benefits when people may need them the most.
As Schmidt said, on behalf of the American Legion, “This plan breaks faith with veterans.” Every man and woman who served put their life in harm’s way. If a mark of their service is a terrible, incurable condition like mesothelioma, the government should never take away the support they need.