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Vets fight, this time for benefits

Many of the men and women who served in the military now are fighting at home to get the benefits the nation promised them.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray heard details of the struggle during a veterans roundtable in the Oak Harbor Senior Center Wednesday afternoon.

Veterans from Whidbey Island and Skagit County voiced their many concerns with the Veteran’s Administration bureaucracy and the problems with the health care system for veterans.

They had a long list of specifics: They described how veterans have to travel long distances, stand in long lines and add their names to months-long waiting lists to see a doctor.

In many cases, medical services are barely there — especially for mental health or women’s health issues. Many doctors also refuse to accept veteran’s Tri-Care insurance because of the red tape and low reimbursement. And prescription drug co-payments are increasing.

“If they have enough money to put uniforms on them and send them into harm’s way,” said Bill Schrier of the American Legion, “why don’t we have enough money to spend on them when they come home?”

Murray said she’s been fighting and will keep fighting for veterans. She said it’s especially important in military communities like Island County, where about 12,000 veterans live, for services to be accessible and effective.

“Here more than anywhere,” she said, “we need to show them we are keeping our commitment.”

Murray complained that a representative from the VA was supposed to be at the Oak Harbor meeting, but the person cancelled at the last moment. “It’s consistent with what’s been happening,” she said, referring to the lack of openness from the VA.

She said the VA does a lot of good work, but she believes bureaucrats are feeling pressure from the Bush Administration. “They are being stymied about what they can say,” she said.

Murray, the first woman to sit on Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, described her struggle in Congress to get adequate funding for VA health care; prevent the VA for mistreating veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; improve support and transition services for Guard and Reserve members; and keep VA hospitals open in the state.

Murray, a Democrat, said she finally succeeded in an effort to increase funding for VA health care by $1 billion after offering, and losing, three amendments in votes along party lines. She said the Bush Administration finally admitted that a $1 billion shortfall she had predicted based on the increased costs from the war.

“It’s an incredibly important win, but it shouldn’t have been that hard,” she said. She added that benefits for veterans didn’t used to be a partisan issue.

Still, the senator said the $1 billion won’t be nearly enough and she’s working to get more. She said the VA was “grossly unprepared” to deal with the growth in demand for services and the number of Iraq veterans accessing care.

Hurricane Katrina made the problem worse. At least one major VA hospital was destroyed and will have to be rebuilt. Murray said the funding should not come out of the VA budget.

Murray discussed a Bush administration plan to shut down a VA hospital in Washington state and open up seven smaller clinics for veterans. The problem, she said, was that the Republican administration provided money to close the hospitals, but no money to build the clinics.

Murray said the administration tried to take back soldiers’ enlistment bonuses after they re-enlisted, but the Democrats successfully fought the proposal.

President George W. Bush did not immediately respond to an e-mail message for comment.

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