Veterans continue to fight for rights

By Billy Corriher

Jonesboro resident Ted French served on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. When he enlisted to fight for the Allies he was promised, like all the other young soldiers, free health care for the rest of his life.

Now, he's 76 years old and he's disgusted with the condition of today's veterans health care system.

"One of my friends who's also a veteran told me ?This is ain't the country we fought for,'" French said. "A lot of older veterans feel that way."

French said he's been lucky enough to stay healthy. But even though he hasn't used the Department of Veterans Affairs for medical care yet, he worries what will happen when he does call on the government for help.

"I figure right now, if I needed medical attention and went to the VA, I wouldn't be able to get it," he said. "A lot of the old World War II boys have suffered with this system."

This year's Independent Budget report, issued by four veterans service organizations, said the VA and the veterans it serves are "severely challenged by the skyrocketing cost of health care, surging demand for services? and eroding value of benefits."

Though the VA says it gets a budget increase every year, the generation of World War II veterans is rapidly aging and the report shows a steady decline since 1995 in dollars appropriated for medical care per system users.

"The VA health-care system can no longer meet the needs of our nation's sick and disabled veterans," the report says.

This has meant longer waiting lists for many veterans, with 235,000 veterans currently waiting six months or more for initial appointments, the report says.

Congress recently cut more than $1.8 billion from the veterans benefit budget, which will result in over one million veterans being removed from the health care system. The government is planning to reduce veterans benefits by more than $25 billion over the next 10 years.

French said the budget cuts for veterans benefits have led to him change his feelings about President Bush.

"I'm a Republican myself, but I will not vote for him again," he said.

Ed Emerson, Georgia adjutant for the Disabled American Veterans, said the main problem for veterans recently has been a new classification system that pushed the maximum income level for receiving benefits up to $25,162 for a single veteran, forcing many veterans out of the system.

"The VA has basically put them out in the cold," Emerson, a Gulf War veteran, said.

VA spokeswoman Jo Schuda said the VA is always asking for more money, but the new classification system is a "matter of setting priorities."

"We're kind of conserving the budget for the more needy," she said.

Stockbridge resident Joanne Consalvo-Mulvaney has seen the effects of the new classification system firsthand. Her father, Joseph Consalvo, is suffering from brain cancer and was denied benefits because of the system.

Consalvo-Mulvaney said she is outraged at the inadequacies of the veterans health care system.

"I could just spit nails when I see the money we put out for other causes," she said. "What really kills me, would be if my father goes to his grave thinking this country is turning its back on him."

Consalvo-Mulvaney has started an organization called Veterans Independent Research Targeting Under-budgeted Entitlements, or VIRTUE, to research how the cuts are affecting veterans.

The organization is also raising money for a Veterans Wall of Honor in Henry County, she said. Anyone interested in helping by donating or volunteering can email her at joannem@fccstockbridge.org.

Consalvo-Mulvaney has discussed the plight of her father and other veterans with local legislators, including Rep. David Scott, D-Atlanta.

Scott said he is appalled at the condition of the veterans health care system, and would like to see more funding for benefits.

"We are not treating our veterans right," he said. "If we think about so many soldiers in Iraq right now, they're going to come back and have to stand in line to see a doctor."