Leave it to President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress to enact what they billed as "comprehensive" health reform and overlook the plight of 8.5 million veterans. That's what they did in 2010 when they passed Obamacare. It provides coverage for convicts and even for newcomers to this country with no waiting period, but it does nothing to help the nation's veterans, who have suffered waiting for care in the Veterans Affairs system for over 20 years.
This injustice can be fixed with a one-page bill that Congress should pass this week. Obamacare already offers bronze, silver, gold and platinum plans. Congress should add the red/white/blue plan for vets, with no premiums or deductibles for those who have been in combat.
Trapped vets waiting months for VA care shouldn't get their hopes up based on congressional investigations, hearings and empty promises that the backlog will be fixed. They need care, and for many who are waiting now, lives are at stake. Give them the option of enrolling in Obamacare at no cost, so they can go outside the broken VA system to be treated by civilian doctors and hospitals. Obamacare eventually should and will be repealed, but whatever reform replaces it should also guarantee combat vets a no-cost escape from the VA.
In April, the nation heard about dirty tricks used at the Phoenix VA medical center to conceal long waits for care. Whistleblower Dr. Sam Foote exposed how more than 1,400 vets had lingered on a secret waiting list and that 40 died waiting. Since then, more whistleblowers have reported harmful wait times and corrupt practices at VA medical centers in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and such Texas cities as Waco, San Antonio and Austin.
The American Legion and members of Congress have called for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki's resignation. Obama says he stands behind him. Ridiculous. Though the deadly waiting predates Shinseki, he has led the department since 2009, long enough to have fixed it. The secretary needs to go, but that won't save the lives of vets currently waiting.
That's why Congress needs to do more than call for more investigations and demand that VA officials testify. Blah, Blah, Blah. All of that has been done many times before.
In 1996, Congress passed a law requiring vets needing care to be seen within 30 days. The General Accountability Office, a research service for Congress, reported in 2000 and again in 2001 about excessive waits. In 2007 and again in 2012, the VA's inspector general confirmed routine cheating at many VAs to hide waits. And last year, in March 2013, GAO health experts and American Legion investigators testified to Congress about the dirty tricks.
Congress should spare us more grandstanding and act now to help waiting vets by offering them the red/white/blue plan at minimal cost and offering those who have been in battle the plan for free.
Obamacare is a raw deal for most Americans, but it could be a godsend for vets. Three-fourths of Americans in Obamacare plans already had insurance, according to a new McKinsey survey. Now they are paying higher premiums (before subsidies), face deductibles double or triple what they had before, and can no longer use doctors and hospitals they used in the past.
But for many vets, an Obamacare plan would be a rescue from delayed care. The hitch is that their VA insurance has no premium or deductibles. Vets need a similar deal in Obamacare, not the whopping $3,000 or $5,000 deductibles in most exchange plans. After all, vets have already earned their health benefits.
Congress and Obama should get their priorities straight and put vets ahead of convicts. At least 35 percent of people eligible for Obamacare's Medicaid expansion are convicts or ex-convicts. Providing ex-cons with health coverage may help reduce recidivism. They have serious mental health and addiction problems. But so do veterans tormented by the horrors of war. Suicides by male veterans under 30 soared 44 percent in the last three years, according to VA data.
"There's probably a tidal wave of suicides coming," says Brian Kinsella, an Iraq war veteran who advocates for prevention. America should do everything it can to avert this crisis and give vets the health care they were promised.
Betsy McCaughey is a former lieutenant governor of New York and the author of "Beating Obamacare." She reads the law so you don't have to. Visit www.betsymccaughey.com. To find out more about Betsy McCaughey and read features by other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.