Wednesday, July 6, 2005
Gratitude is a fruit of great cultivation; you do not find it among gross people.
—Samuel Johnson, BOSWELL, Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides
Republicans in Congress have done wonderful things for people in the military all of which goes to show that while helping the rich get richer through bountiful tax cuts, they have not overlooked those in the armed forces whose sacrifices often involve much more than forgoing the opportunity to accumulate great wealth. Of course, there are occasional missteps.
The Veterans Administration completely messed up in its budgeting process by ending up in fiscal 2005 with a $1.5 billion shortfall in available funds for veterans’ benefits of which $272 million was attributable to the cost of treating veterans injured while fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
As Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Jim Nicholson, explained, the error was the fault of the actuaries. It was a perfectly understandable error. The actuaries were so busy working on numbers that they had not heard Mr. Bush say that we were engaged in a war without end. They based their calculations on 2002 when we were at peace instead of 2004 when the war was well underway. Among other things, they assumed there would only be 23,553 veterans in need of medical treatment in 2005 whereas in fact there will be more than 100,000 veterans treated during fiscal year 2005.
When the error first became public at the end of June, Democrats immediately proposed that spending for veterans’ health care be increased by $1.5 billion. In response, Senator Larry Craig of Idaho said he spoke with White House officials who resisted the idea of emergency spending. Nonetheless, as soon as word got out that the White House had rebuffed the attempts of the Democratic members of the Senate to increase the amount to be spent on veterans’ health care by $1.5 billion (thus suggesting a White House lacking compassion for the wounded) Republicans saw the error of their ways and replaced fiscal restraint with dollars for the wounded. This was not the first time that a Republican controlled Congress showed itself to be on the side of the veterans. It has twice intervened in a food fight between injured veterans and the government.
Beginning in 1958 officers in the military who were hospitalized had to pay for their food while in hospital. The daily cost was $8.10. In 1981 it was decided enlisted personnel should be treated the same as officers, at least as far as food was concerned, and they, too, were charged $8.10 a day. This seems harsh but it turns out there was a method in the harshness.
Service personnel are entitled to a monetary allowance for food known as Basic Allowance For Subsistence (BAS). For officers it is $175.23 per month and for enlisted personnel it is $267.18. (The difference is attributable to the fact that the government has always thought it should pay the entire cost of feeding enlisted personnel but only part of the cost for officers.)
After the first Gulf war Congress decreed that service personnel who were receiving BAS at their home bases should continue to receive it when deployed even though they were taking all their meals at the bases to which they were assigned. Being in hospital after being wounded, however, was not considered deployment. Therefore, when in hospital the military patients had to pay for their food. When that came to Congress’ attention in 2003 it passed a law exempting the war wounded from paying for their hospital meals, a generous gesture since all of the patients would have preferred not going to war and not being hospitalized. It only seemed fair that having been wounded they should eat for free. And eat for free they did-until January of 2005.
On January 3, 2005 it was decreed that free hospital food would be given only to inpatients confined to hospital beds and to certain outpatients. In a speech on the Senate floor, on April 14, 2005, Barack Obama of Illinois described the policy saying: “[B]ecause the Department of Defense doesn’t consider getting physical therapy or rehabilitation services in a medical hospital as ‘being hospitalized,’ there are wounded veterans who still do not qualify for the free meals other veterans receive. . . . This is wrong and we have a moral obligation to fix it.”
Congress fixed it. Section 1023(a) H.R. 1268 that became Public Law 109-13 prohibits charging anyone injured in Iraq or Afghanistan for their meals so long as they are “undergoing medical recuperation or therapy. . . at a military treatment facility. . . .” Unfortunately, Section 1023(b) says Section 1023(a) expires on September 30, 2005. The war won’t. Perhaps Congress will consider extending the benefits beyond that date.