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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited. 

Friday — April 16, 2004


VA secretary lauds
better health care
for veterans

Express Staff Writer

Over the past 10 years, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has dramatically improved health care for veterans, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi told an audience Thursday at the American Legion Hall in Ketchum.

Principi had been invited to speak to the 183 members of Post 115 by a friend who lives in the Wood River Valley.

As a member of President George Bush’s Cabinet, Principi presides over the second largest department in the U.S. government. With a budget of about $26 billion, the VA’s health care system of 163 hospitals and 800 outpatient clinics serves about 7 million of the nation’s 25 million veterans.

Principi, a Vietnam War veteran in the Navy, served as deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs from 1989 to 1992 and as secretary since 2001.

"Until recently, the VA’s response to claims was unacceptably slow," he said.

Principi said that response was so slow that it had prompted accusation that the department was hoping that many veterans would give up or die before receiving health care from the VA.

"Nothing stung me more," he said.

Principi said the percentage of veterans waiting for a decision on their enrollment status for more than six months has been reduced from 48 percent to 18 percent.

He said that has been accomplished partly through a 40 percent increase in the department’s total budget—now $64 billion—since Bush took office.

He said a recent assessment indicated that VA hospitals now outperform private and other public hospitals in 16 of 18 indicators.

In an interview, Jim Sola, associate director of the VA’s medical center in Boise, said those changes have substantially improved health care for vets in Idaho.

"The quality of health care here is, by all measures, as good as you’ll find anywhere," he said.

He said the number of VA patients in Idaho has increased 50 percent over the past five years, to about 70,000.

Until recently, there was no clear national standard for which vets were eligible for health care and for which conditions. Some VA facilities limited enrollment to patients with service-related conditions, while others did not. The Veterans Health Care Eligibility Reform Act of 1996 opened the system to all vets, for all their medical care.

However, there remains a system of priority classes for enrollment in the system, based primarily on income.

The main benefit to a veteran’s receiving care in the VA system is that it is either free or far cheaper than private medical care.

The war in Iraq has placed some unexpected demands on the VA system. However, Principi said his department has been able to meet those demands.

"The wounded men and women returning home from the war on terrorism must receive compassionate care," he said.

He said improved body armor and better medical care have saved the lives of some soldiers who in earlier wars would have died from their wounds.

"We’re able to save them, but they’re coming home with missing limbs," he said.

The nation will need to care for those soldiers and their dependents for a long time. According to the VA’s Web site, its health care system is still providing benefits for six children of Civil War veterans.


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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.