Senators dispute hybrid benefits, Priority 8

By Rick Maze - Staff writer

An unusually contentious Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee meeting Wednesday featured a fight over the creation of hybrid benefits — partly guaranteed and partly set by the whims of the federal budget — plus a battle over priorities for treatment of veterans' hospitals and even a mention of socialite Paris Hilton.

It was Sen. Bernard Sanders, the political independent from Vermont and sponsor of the proposed hybrid benefits, who brought up Hilton during debate on veterans' funding as he and Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, discussed veterans' health care legislation.

Craig, the committee's former chairman and now senior Republican, was trying to block Sanders' amendments to increase veterans' burial benefits and grants for autos and homes that are equipped for the handicapped. Craig also opposed a committee plan that would restore the right to enroll in the veterans' health care system to veterans with modest incomes and no service-related disabilities, who are in the lowest priority group for care.

"I am concerned that if we flood the system and don't fund it, we are in for consequences," Craig said, warning that quality of care could dip and combat-injured veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan could be "shouldered out of the way."

Sanders said the VA budget could be increased, and that would take care of everything.

"I was elected to change priorities here in Washington," Sanders said. "Before I give tax breaks to Paris Hilton's parents and other millionaires, I want to make certain we take care of our veterans," he said.

Even Craig smiled at the reference to Hilton, but he was not smiling through most of the hearing.

On a mostly party-line vote, Sanders' proposal to increase plot allowances, funeral benefits and auto and home grants through supplemental payments passed the committee over Craig's objections. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., voted with Sanders and the committee Democrats for the hybrid benefits.

Under Sanders' plan, attached to S 1315, the Veterans' Benefits Enhancement Act of 2007, eligible veterans or their survivors would continue to receive current payments — up to $300 for buying a burial plot, up to $2,000 for funeral expenses, and grants of up to $11,000 for adapted vehicles and $50,000 for adapted housing — but could get more than twice as much if Congress pays for supplemental benefits.

His plan would create a supplemental $445 burial plot allowance, up to $2,100 more for funeral expenses and an additional $11,000 for an auto grant and $10,500 for a housing grant.

Sanders said he was creating supplemental benefits rather than increasing existing benefits to try to get around internal budget restrictions used in Congress that require increases in mandatory benefits to be offset by cuts in existing benefits, tax increases or a combination of the two.

Craig said the idea is fraught with problems. First, he said that while he supports some of the ideas, particularly an increase in the burial plot allowance, there is no guarantee any increases would be approved. Second, he said the funding scheme was just a ruse to get around rules that exist to prevent runaway budgets, and that Sanders' success could start a spending wave if other lawmakers use the same tactic. Third, Craig said it is possible that the supplemental benefits could be paid some years and not paid others, depending on the availability of funding, which would create unfairness.

By a 10-6 vote, the veterans' committee rejected an attempt by Craig to gut a committee proposal in S 1233, a health care bill that orders the Department of Veterans Affairs to reopen enrollments in the VA for so-called Priority 8 veterans, those with no service-connected disabilities and incomes of at least $27,000 a year.

Four years ago, the VA closed enrollment to this group of veterans, the lowest on the priority list, saying there was not enough money to cover their care. At the urging of Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, the committee chairman, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the bill would reopen enrollment for Priority 8 veterans.

The potential effect on the VA of the extra patients is not known. About 17 million veterans could technically qualify, but only about 1.6 million are believed to be really interested in enrolling for VA health care.

Craig noted that 80 percent of Priority 8 veterans have health insurance that would allow them to get care elsewhere. He said their treatment should not come at the expense of other veterans, so he proposed am amendment that would allow enrollment only if the VA certifies that higher-priority veterans would not be hurt and that there is space, people and equipment for the new patients.

"I think opening the system to 17 million new veterans at this time is a bad idea," Craig said.

But Murray said the VA was "wrong" four years ago to deny care to Priority 8 veterans and that Congress needs to fix the problem, regardless of cost.

"To tell a veteran we may not have enough money to take care of you is the wrong approach," she said.

Akaka said adding the Priority 8 veterans could end up helping the VA because they will be making co-payments and their private insurance can be billed for care.

"We have fought hard to see that these veterans who have served their country honorably get the care they deserve," Akaka said.

The committee's legislation would have to be passed by the full Senate, agreed to by the House and signed by President Bush before it could take effect.