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This promise had its roots in a government decision in 2003 that, due to limited resources and a mandate to provide quality and timely health care, the VA would prioritize those veterans who would be eligible to receive health care benefits. Priority was given, for example, to veterans with service-connected conditions, people with low income or those with special health care needs. The VA decided, however, to stop enrolling nondisabled "Priority 8" vets whose income exceeded some set thresholds.
During the campaign, Obama promised he would do away with those income thresholds. All veterans, he vowed, would be allowed back in the VA.
In May, President Obama proposed a $113 billion Veterans Affairs budget for 2010 that would make significant progress toward restoring eligibility to VA health care benefits for many "Priority 8" veterans.
According to the budget plan, "For the first time since January 2003, VA expands eligibility for VA health care to nondisabled veterans earning modest incomes. This expansion will bring nearly 550,000 eligible veterans into the VA health care system by 2013. The 2010 budget request provides the resources to achieve this level while maintaining high quality and timely care for lower-income and service-disabled veterans who currently rely on VA medical care."
While 2013 is the longer-term goal, the 2010 veterans budget approved in July by the House Veterans Affairs Appropriations Committee included $533 million to expand eligibility for health care services to non-service disabled veterans. That amount would allow the VA to increase the income limit by 10 percent (to about $30,000, depending on where you live). The VA estimates it will translate to an additional 266,000 veterans who will enroll in the VA health care system.
The White House plan calls for relaxing the income thresholds more and more over the next several years.
That's a big commitment. And by and large, it appears veterans leaders are pleased.
"The president is taking care of veterans," said Joe Davis, national spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars. "He is following through on this provision."
Still, Davis said, it will be interesting to see if the VA system is equipped to handle the additional people made eligible this year.
"It's going to be difficult because of capacity," Davis said. "But you have to start somewhere. Only time will tell if you can open it further."
Testifying before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Eric K. Shinseki, secretary of the Veterans Affairs Department, said the VA is up to the task.
"The president"s decision to relax income thresholds established in 2003, which froze Priority Group 8 enrollments, has enabled many more veterans to access the excellent health care available through our Veterans Health Administration (VHA)," Shinseki said. "It has increased VA's workload, but we are prepared to accommodate up to 500,000 enrollees, who are being phased in over the next four years."
Clearly, Obama has made strides toward keeping his commitment on this promise. But in the campaign, he didn't say he was going to phase in the changes. Look again at what Obama's position paper stated:
"When troops serve, they are not divided by income classes or priority groups. Yet, today the VA is picking and choosing which veterans to serve. Barack Obama is committed to ending the unfair ban on health care enrollment of certain groups of veterans, including 'Priority 8' veterans who often earn modest incomes. He has voted to end this unfair policy, which has resulted in the VA turning away nearly one million veterans since 2003. As president, one of Barack Obama"s first acts will be signing an executive order reversing this ban."
But it was not one of his first acts. Indeed, Obama has not signed an executive order reversing this ban, as he said he would. Instead, he has outlined a budget plan to relax income thresholds to allow more and more Priority 8 veterans to be eligible for health care benefits over time. And Obama didn't make the change in one fell swoop as promised.
Perhaps Obama concluded that it was more sensible to roll out the changes over time so as not to overwhelm the VA system. And some would certainly argue the president is making steady progress toward keeping the substance of this promise. Nonetheless, Obama didn't do it on the timetable he promised. And so we rule this one a Compromise.
White House Web site, transcript: Remarks by the President at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention , Aug. 17, 2009
White House Office of Management and Budget, "President's Budget Fact Sheets: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs"
White House Web site, President Obama's Proposed 2010 Department of Veterans Affairs Budget
U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd Web site, press release: "Byrd Announces Funding Commitment To Our Nations Veterans," July 13, 2009
House Committee on Veterans' Affairs Web site, Statement of The Honorable Eric K.Shinseki, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Web site, VA Health Care Eligibility and Enrollment
Interview with Joe Davis, national spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars, Oct. 20, 2009