Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Historical look at benefits reveals trends

MILITARY UPDATE: Historical look at benefits reveals trends

TOM PHILPOTT 2010-11-30 16:09:37

Proposals to raise VA health care fees for some veterans in efforts to curb federal budget deficits, causes some to conclude that veteran benefits are under attack.

Bernard Rostker, former under secretary of defense for personnel and now a senior fellow at the RAND Corp., has a more optimistic perspective on how America cares for and compensates its wartime veterans.

For more than a year Rostker has researched what will be a two-volume study on the treatment of veterans and their survivors, going back to before the Revolutionary War, with a special focus on wounded warrior care.

His original premise, he said, was that veterans’ care and benefits today reflect a deeper attachment to the force, the result of moving from a military of conscripts after the Vietnam War, to a more professional force comprised of volunteers.

But as he completed volume one, covering the Colonial era through World War II, Rostker said he found the premise to be wrong. Much of what’s being done today for veterans of the all-volunteer force is “rediscovering” what’s been done before.

One exception, he said, are the unprecedented resources aimed at the invisible mental wounds, reflecting more medical knowledge, the nature of current wars and an attitude shift, even since the Persian Gulf War.

Otherwise, the infusion of money and staff for veterans’ care and benefits fits an historical pattern, Rostker said, noting the nation’s deep appreciation for those who fight for country and suffer wounds or illness.

Other patterns emerge, Rostker said. Government support tends to deepen with budget surpluses. Benefits tend to improve as veterans age, their ranks thin out, and enhancements become more affordable.

Wars bring change too. The Department of Veterans Affairs budget has more than doubled since U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 -- from $51 billion then to $114 billion in the fiscal years that ended Sept. 30. VA spending is set to climb another 10 percent this year, to $125 billion.

Vet groups laud a 25 percent rise in VA spending since President Obama took office. Some contrast that largess to the Bush administration difficulty in June 2005 when it had to request a $2 billion supplemental for VA to meet pressing health care obligations. Some veterans groups had called the original budget that year “tightfisted, miserly” and “woefully inadequate.”

Rostker avoids such comparisons. But his research might inform cost-conscious politicians about the perils of scrimping on veterans.

President Franklin Roosevelt made such a misstep, he said, while trying to pull the nation out of the Great Depression. At his urging, Congress in 1933 passed the Economy Act, which cut deeply into veterans’ benefits. Roosevelt told the American Legion convention “the mere wearing of a uniform” in war should not entitle a veteran, and later his survivors, to a pension for disabilities incurred after he left service.

The backlash was strong enough that the following March, Congress overrode Roosevelt’s veto and restored most benefits it had cut a year earlier.

The Continental Congress in 1776 first recognized responsibility for wounded v eterans, voting to authorize half pay for life to anyone who lost a limb or their ability to earn a living due to the revolution. By 1805 Congress approved pay for disabilities developed years after a veteran left service.

By 1818, with federal coffers flush with tariff money, the Department of War gave pensions to anyone who served in wartime, not just disabled.

Ten years later Congress settled complaints of Revolutionary War veterans by granting 850 surviving officers and soldiers full pay for life.

Rostker noted too that in 1833 Congress first approved “concurrent receipt” – payment of both an “invali d pension” and service pension. In 1836, Congress extended pension eligibility to widows and children of Revolutionary War veterans, adding enormously to the cost. The last spouse eligible for that Revolutionary War pension died in 1906, Rostker said.

The Civil War Pension Law of 1862 was viewed as the most generous any government had ever adopted, Rostker said, allowing disability payments for injuries or ailments incurred as a direct result of service. It set up a medical screening system, though reliance on hometown doctors led to rampant fraud and soon a purging of the rolls, Rostker said.

Payments to surviving spouse and children could exceed what veterans got. The last Civil War pensioners lived well into the 20th Century.

The study will span newer, more controversial periods including Gen. Omar Bradley’s reform of the VA after World War II, Korea and Vietnam and Gulf War Syndrome.

Through history, Rostker said, “you see the generosity in many ways. You see it in the amount of money given, in the change of eligibility standards. And recently in the understanding of the mental aspects of conflict.”

Historical look at benefits reveals trends

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