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VA Cutbacks

Veterans Affairs Health System To Cease Active Recruiting

Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi on Aug. 1 defended the department's decision to stop actively recruiting veterans into the "overwhelmed" VA health system, the AP/Baltimore Sun reports. "We're having a very difficult time nationally caring for the veterans who have enrolled. I will not be party to giving veterans expectations we cannot meet," Principi said. He added that the health system is still open to any veteran who wants to enroll in its programs but will no longer "actively recruit" veterans into the system because already thousands of veterans are on a waiting list for services. In a memo dated July 18, VA undersecretary Laura Miller directed each of the VA department's 23 health network directors to ensure that "no marketing activities to enroll new veterans occur within [their] networks" (AP/Baltimore Sun, 8/2). Miller said that efforts such as health fairs, open houses, enrollment displays, mailings to veterans and local newspaper articlesbe suspended. She added that recruiting efforts for the VA health system are "inappropriate" because the agency faces a tight budget and "overwhelming demand." Bill Bradshaw, director of national veterans services for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said more than 300,000 veterans are on waiting lists for appointments at VA clinics (AP/Washington Times, 8/2).

Increasing Enrollment

Since the mid-1990s, the number of veterans enrolled in the VA health system -- which includes 850 outpatient clinics, 163 hospitals and 137 nursing homes -- has doubled to six million. Many veterans have been enrolling in the system because it offers them prescription drugs at a relatively low cost, and others have signed up as more managed care plans have exited Medicare or Medicare providers refuse to accept new patients. The department had moved to trim benefits to address increasing costs and tried to suspend enrollment for "Category 7" veterans, those who are not disabled or poor and do not have medical problems resulting from military service (Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report, 4/8).

Reaction

Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.), a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, called the memo suspending recruitment activities "offensive," stating, "I certainly hope that the secretary will send out directives nationwide assuring that every VA facility is not to conceal information from veterans." Claude Carpenter, head of the Arkansas Veterans Coalition, added that the memo "sends the wrong message" to veterans (Demillo, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, 8/2). Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a Vietnam veteran, called for Miller's removal and asked President Bush to direct the VA to overturn its "anti-outreach policy" (AP/Washington Times, 8/2). "Veterans need advocates in the VA, not bureaucrats willing to deny them needed health care," he said (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, 8/2). Principi said that he will not ask for Miller's resignation (AP/Baltimore Sun, 8/2).

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