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Obama plan to bill veterans' private insurance for combat wounds is quickly dropped

Facing fierce criticism from veterans' groups, the Obama administration backed off a proposal on Wednesday to bill veterans' private health insurance for treatment of combat wounds and injuries.

It was a quick reversal of an idea floated by the administration in the past week that was intended to offer $530 million in annual savings to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Veterans groups almost universally condemned the proposal, saying it would lead private insurers to pass along costs to veterans or provide incentive for employers to avoid hiring them.

"The government created a disabled veteran, and the government has an obligation to pay for the care of a disabled veteran," said Dave Autry, a spokesman for Disabled American Veterans.

"That's why we created the VA to begin with."

The White House had stressed before Wednesday's reversal that it was simply considering the plan and hadn't made a final decision. An Obama spokesman noted that the administration also is seeking an 11 percent hike in discretionary spending in the VA budget.

The VA already seeks so-called third-party billing for veterans with nonservice-connected ailments.

"In considering the third-party billing issue, the administration was seeking to maximize the resources available for veterans," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement.

"However, the president listened to concerns raised by (veterans groups) that this might, under certain circumstances, affect veterans' and their families' ability to access health care.

"Therefore, the president has instructed that its consideration be dropped."

Some local GOP lawmakers said they remain puzzled by President Barack Obama's decision to risk the ire of veterans for what is a relatively small slice of the VA's $100 billion budget.

"I think the president got extremely bad advice on this one," said Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, who was among a group of Republicans who sent Obama a letter Wednesday opposing the plan.

"I'm pleased the administration is dropping their misguided plan," said Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who spoke out against the proposal on the Senate floor on Wednesday. Veterans groups "were right to challenge the president on this," he said.

Said Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, "I can't find anybody who was supportive of the idea."

Army veteran Neil Emrich, 79, of Crystal River, who suffered severe frostbite in the Korean War, said health care funding for veterans is too often political.

But this one, he said, was a no-brainer.

"I was in combat for my government," Emrich said. "To say a private insurer should pay for my injury, I don't think it's being selfish to say that shouldn't happen."

Times staff writer Wes Allison contributed to this report. William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5306.

Obama plan to bill veterans' private insurance for combat wounds is quickly dropped 03/18/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 18, 2009 11:36pm]

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