Veterans' group angles for free medical care
Veterans' group angles for free medical care
When the pieces come together on Sept. 22, the Class Act Group, a Florida-based veterans' organization, hopes to present a perfect picture for the cameras.
On the steps of the U.S. Capitol, veterans of the Vietnam, Korean and World War II conflicts will gather with sympathetic members of Congress to spotlight their demand for free, lifetime health coverage that they say is owed them for putting in 20 years of active service. At the event, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., will stand beside a man he calls "a very gutsy guy," congressional Medal of Honor winner Air Force Col. George "Bud" Day, whom he met when both were prisoners of war in North Vietnam.
Day, Class Act's leader, has enlisted the help of Washington-based national veterans' associations and an outside lobbying firm to put together the event, which is supposed to garner publicity for both the veterans' demands and a lawsuit that the group has filed demanding millions of dollars in damages from the federal government.
But Class Act's road to the Capitol steps is strewn with culture clashes, as well as uneasy alliances with other veterans' groups. "We want Class Act to be able to communicate that they are very angry . . . without killing the person they're giving a message to-it's a fine line," said retired Maj. James W. Bapple III, deputy legislative director of the National Association for Uniformed Services, Class Act's chief Washington ally.
Class Act, some veterans advocates said, often crosses the line. Pointing to Day's publicity materials, including a letter that refers to "outright bald-faced ignoble lies, by the Department of Justice (Janet Reno), Congress, and President Bill Clinton," these other groups warn that the same fervor that rouses the grass roots will alienate potential patrons on the Hill.
Day retorts that Washington's veteran groups are too willing to compromise. "I filed a suit . . . because I was just bent out of shape that none of the so-called military fraternal organizations had the balls to do it."
Day, Class Act and their allies are determined to get free health care. Throughout the Cold War, military retirees got exactly that. But since then, base hospitals have closed and the number of doctors in the military has shrunk, making it more difficult to provide free health care for veterans. The more than 1 million military retirees who counted on free health care were stranded-and furious. After Day filed his lawsuit, "I had literally hundreds of phone calls [and was] swamped for probably about two weeks."
Day, who's a lawyer, turned his case into a class action suit. It charges that the military's frequent promises in recruiting and training manuals of free lifetime care constitute an implicit but binding contract.
But on Aug. 31, a federal district judge in Florida threw out Class Act's case. "I must conclude that the plaintiffs certainly have a strong, equitable argument that the government should abide by its promises," the judge said, but it is up to Congress to help the group. Class Act is expected to appeal the decision.
"Challenges to military benefits issues are almost impossible," added David Addlestone, a lawyer with the National Veterans Legal Services Program. The government rarely loses in contracts cases, legal experts noted.
To Washington-based veterans groups, Class Act's litigation effort looks less like the main axis of advance and more like supporting fire for their legislative strategy of incremental reform.
"We agree with what they're doing, sort of," said Sydney Hickey, associate government relations director of the National Military Family Association, "but they haven't quite got their act together on what it is they want."
Even sympathetic lawmakers emphasize that free health care is a nonstarter.
Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., who has hammered military health care since he first came to Washington and will "most surely" attend the September event, admitted that "it's like pulling teeth" to get anything done for veterans, including limited demonstration programs that allow military hospitals to bill Medicare for veterans' health care costs.
McCain urges moderation. "The reality is [that] you've got to do the best you can . . . incrementally," he said. He and Norwood have backed the approach taken by other veterans' associations, which are willing to move gradually on the issue.
Still, some of those groups grumble that McCain's support for the latest package of health care initiatives was both too little and too late.
Even so, the associations' congressional allies have succeeded in slipping roughly $100 million into both chambers' spending bills to help military retirees. The House-Senate conference committee may finish up work on the Department of Defense appropriations bill by the time Day and his troops come to town. But the military groups will be looking to the next Congress for more help.
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