Vermont senators call for more military benefits

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(Host) Both of Vermont’s U.S. senators are backing plans to beef up spending on a number of Veterans’ programs. Senator Patrick Leahy wants to extend health care benefits for National Guard and Reserve units that have been called into active duty. Senator Jim Jeffords is supporting an effort to provide more money for the Veterans Administration’s health care system.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) According to a recent study conducted by the General Accounting Office, 20% of all National Guard members and reservists who are facing active deployment do not have adequate health insurance. Under a plan proposed by Senator Leahy, a comprehensive health care safety net program would be made available at a reasonable cost to anyone who faces a loss of insurance when they are called to serve. Leahy says it’s critical to adopt this plan at this time:

(Leahy) “This is extremely important because you have somebody that gets called up – instead of being called up for 30 days or 60 days, they’re getting called up for a year or year and a half or more. They’ve left their business, or they may even have a small business of their own, or left their job and suddenly their family is left without medical care. Or they’re left without the kind of bridge medical care as they’re getting ready. It doesn’t make much sense. For one thing, we can easily afford it. But secondly, we’re going to have a more ready and better prepared military if we do it.”

(Kinzel) Senator Jeffords is concerned that the returning veterans will find a health care system that is beyond capacity and unable to take care of their health needs. Jeffords is backing an effort to increase funding for the VA hospital system by almost $2 billion.

Jeffords says he’s concerned that many veterans already face long waiting periods for medical care at the VA facilities and thinks the problem will get a lot worse when veterans serving in Iraq return home. Jeffords is angry that the Bush administration is not supporting his plan:

(Jeffords) “The fact that they are holding back funding for the veterans at this time when we have the Iraq war and veterans from World War II in dire need of, because of their aging, better health care – to have them turning their backs on it, I just don’t understand it. It’s just impossible for me. Of course I’m a veteran so maybe I’m a little bit predisposed that way, but I just can’t understand it.”

(Kinzel) Both Jeffords and Leahy plan to present their proposals as amendments to a Supplemental Budget bill that the Bush administration is urging Congress to pass in the next few weeks. The centerpiece of that legislation is a plan to appropriate $87 billion to the war effort in Iraq.

For Vermont Public Radio I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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