Obama plan would boost Vt. vet care

By:  Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau

BURLINGTON – Proposed funding increases for the Veterans Administration would significantly expand health care opportunities for some of the 60,000 veterans living in Vermont, Sen. Bernard Sanders said Tuesday.

Pres. Barack Obama's $3.8 trillion fiscal year 2011 budget proposal includes $125 billion for the VA – a nearly 10 percent increase over last year and 20 percent jump over 2009. The controversial plan could still undergo significant changes in Congress. As proposed, however, Sanders said the plan would afford federal health coverage for an additional 235,000 veterans nationwide.

The expanded coverage would affect so-called "Priority 8" veterans – people with non-service-related injuries whose annual incomes previously put them beyond VA eligibility thresholds. Under the Obama proposal, Sanders said, the income threshold for veterans residing in Chittenden County, for example, would go from $46,255 to slightly below $49,000.

"It's no secret that for many years the VA has not gotten the resources they needed," Sanders said. With the Obama proposal, he said, "we are making progress in making sure veterans in this country are getting health care and other benefits they are entitled to."

It's unclear exactly how many Vermont veterans will benefit from the eligibility changes. State VA officials though said previous eligibility increases brought about 320 new veterans in the VA health care system in fiscal year 2009.

The proposed increases, Sanders said, will also fund VA satellite facilities that will improve accessibility for veterans in far-flung pockets of the state. A new facility will open in Brattleboro this spring, sparing veterans lengthy commutes to the White River headquarters. Sanders said the proposed funding increases would likely mean a new office in northern Vermont as well, likely in Newport.

"The goal here is to make sure veterans throughout the state have a primary health care facility within easy driving distance from where they live rather than having to go to White River," Sanders said.

The proposed funding increases would also trim the VA claims backlog that forces many veterans to wait months or even years to receive approval for various federal benefits. The budget proposal includes an additional $460 million for more than 4,000 new claims processors.

Sanders also used his Burlington press conference as occasion to remind veterans of the post-9/11 GI bill, legislation approved in 2008 that funded substantial increases in college benefits for servicemen and women who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those benefits, he said, are transferable to family members.

Sanders said the increased funding and expanded opportunities mean nothing if veterans don't take advantage. He encouraged veterans to find out more by calling the VA at White River Junction at 866-687-8387, or Sanders' office in Burlington at 800-339-9834.