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Alan Simpson: Cut Veteran Disability Payments

Retired Senator Alan Simpson, who’s co-chairing President Obama’s deficit commission, continues to draw angry denunciation from the Left.  This time, over his suggestion that disabled veterans are too expensive.

Former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson’s comments came a day after The Associated Press reported that diabetes has become the most frequently compensated ailment among Vietnam veterans, even though decades of research has failed to find more than a possible link between the defoliant Agent Orange and diabetes.

“The irony (is) that the veterans who saved this country are now, in a way, not helping us to save the country in this fiscal mess,” said Simpson, an Army veteran who was once chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has also allowed Vietnam veterans to get money for ailments such as lung cancer and prostate cancer, and the agency finalized a proposal Tuesday to grant payments for heart disease — the nation’s leading cause of death.

Simpson declined to say whether the issue would become part of his work on Obama’s panel examining the nation’s debt. He looked to Congress to make a change.

So, Simpson really isn’t saying anything at this point other than that we should look into whether it makes sense to pay vets for ailments totally unconnected to their service.   But DailyKosJoan McCarter is undeterred:

Just like the irony of millions of Americans paying into Social Security on the promise that they would receive benefits back, while the rich get off the hook for repaying the fund they “borrowed” from for their tax cuts and wars. Disabled vets are just like seniors–those “lesser people” of Simpson’s, the ones who fought our wars. Those disabled vets that our own military poisoned while they were serving, can just shove it.

Except that Simpson is himself a veteran, albeit one who served in between wars.   And there’s zero connection between Agent Orange and diabetes.

My late father served in Vietnam and was exposed to the defoliant, so I’m hardly unsympathetic to the cause.  But the youngest veterans of that conflict — which ended 37 years ago — are in their late 50s.  Most are in their 60s or early 70s.   Every ailment they have can’t reasonably be attributed to their service in Vietnam.

Nor, incidentally, are Alan Simpson and I the only ones with that view.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, a Hawaii Democrat who currently chairs the VA committee, said Tuesday he will address the broader issue of so-called presumptive conditions at a hearing previously set for Sept. 23. The committee will look to “see what changes Congress and VA may need to make to existing law and policy,” Akaka said in an e-mail.  “It is our solemn responsibility to help veterans with disabilities suffered in their service to our country,” said Akaka, who served in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II. “That responsibility also requires us to make sure limited resources are available for those who truly need and are entitled to them.”

Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, a Democrat and Vietnam combat veteran, has also raised questions about the spending. The leading Republican on the committee, North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, has not responded to several requests for comment on the topic in recent months.

Because of concerns about Agent Orange, Congress set up a system in 1991 to grant automatic benefits to veterans who served in Vietnam at any point during a 13-year period and later got an ailment linked to the defoliant. The VA has done that with a series of ailments with strong indications of an association to Agent Orange, including Hodgkin’s disease, soft-tissue cancers and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  Other ailments have been added even though and Institute of Medicine review has found they only have a potential association and that they could not rule out other factors. Those maladies include prostate cancer, lung cancer and diabetes. The committee has said that, for diabetes, more powerful influences include family history, physical inactivity and obesity.

The AP found in reviewing millions of VA compensation records that diabetes is now the most frequently compensated ailment, ahead of post-traumatic stress disorder, hearing loss or general wounds. VA officials use a complex formula when awarding benefits and do not track how much is spent for a specific ailment, but AP calculations based on the records suggest that Vietnam veterans with diabetes should receive at least $850 million each year.

We owe it to the men we send to fight our wars to take care of them if they’re disabled from wounds received in battle, injuries received while training, or ailments connected with their service.  And, when there’s reasonable doubt as to whether a particular sickness is service-connected, we should err on the side of compensation.    At the same time, however, those of us who served aren’t any more entitled to the taxpayer’s charity than anyone else for maladies unconnected with our service.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. I’ll say this much, Simpson is doing a good job of taking the heat for the Deficit Commission so far. He hasn’t really changed all that much since his days in the Senate.

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  2. Brummagem Joe says:

    Whatever the merits of Simpson’s arguments I suspect this entire exercise is pretty much DOA.

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  3. Whatever the merits of Simpson’s arguments I suspect this entire exercise is pretty much DOA.

    That it may be.

    The Deficit Commission report will be released after the elections. Depending on what happens, we’ll see by their reaction to it just how serious GOPers are about deficit reduction.

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  4. sam says:

    Just curious (and a disclaimer, I’ve become eligible for VA healthcare owing to my service, nonshooting, during the Vietnam era). If the vets are getting VA care, and are over 65, wouldn’t pushing them off VA just result in them going on Medicare? Wouldn’t that be a wash? Or worse, if it can be shown that Medicare treatment for these vets would be more expensive than VA care.
     

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  5. rodney dill says:

    At the same time, however, those of us who served aren’t any more entitled to the taxpayer’s charity than anyone else for maladies unconnected with our service.

    I think the same treatment (cut benefits) should be the same for all politician’s as well.

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  6. steve says:

    This could get fuzzy. If someone is already on 100% disability for injuries incurred in the service, I would think that we assume responsibility for all medical care.
     
    Steve

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  7. Steve Plunk says:

    Sam,  I think he’s referring to the disability payments rather than the health care.  Does it make sense to pay disability for non service related health issues?  I believe veterans should continue to receive lifetime health care from the VA but I have seen abuse first hand of the disability system.
     
    I agree with Doug that Simpson is taking the heat for the necessary discussions.

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  8. sam says:

    Ah, right, sorry, my bad – I misunderstood the post. And, no, it doesn’t make much sense to compensate for nonservice-related disabilities via the VA. But, can I ask a variant of my based-on-misunderstanding-the-post question? If they are not compensated for disability via the VA, wouldn’t they still be so under Social Security, that is, SSI? Or is the threshold for disability much lower under VA regs?

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  9. Brummagem Joe says:

    “I agree with Doug that Simpson is taking the heat for the necessary discussions.”

    He’s really taking heat for making half assed comments rather than the substance.

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  10. Justin Bowen says:

    Sam,  I think he’s referring to the disability payments rather than the health care.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t one’s ability to receive free VA health care directly tied to their service-connected disability rating?  My understanding, which is based upon my own experience with the VA, is that A) if a person doesn’t have a high-enough rating, then that person has to pay for VA care after a certain number of years after their service and B) the free VA care only applies to health care related to the disability in question.  I get VA disability for service-connected disabilities.  I went in for a check-up and my doc put me on cholesterol-lowering medication for my high cholesterol (which I was not diagnosed with while in the military and which I am not getting VA disability for).  Shortly after my prescription showed up in the mail, a bill for that prescription also showed up.  Needless to say, I’m not going to be going to the VA in the future for non-covered problems; I can get crappy health care at the local walk-in clinic, which is mere minutes away as opposed to more than an hour away for the VA hospital, and pay much less for it.

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  11. Joe,

    Because there is no substance yet, mostly.

    And this is just Simpson being Simpson. I was sort of a fan of his acerbic wit back in the day.

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  12. wr says:

    Funny how Simpson wants to cut medical care for veterans and slash Social Security for greedy seniors, but it never seems to cross his mind to suggest eliminating pensions and lifetime health benefits for former senators. What a perfect Republican!

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  13. sam says:

    @Justin

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t one’s ability to receive free VA health care directly tied to their service-connected disability rating?

    No, not in the absolute sense. As I said, I am now eligible for VA Healthcare because I am technically a Vietnam Vet (Vietnam era started in 1961, I was discharged in 1962). It is true that there is a sliding scale of payment for the healthcare depending on, for example, whether one was wounded in the Vietnam (it is free, I think for these folks, as it should be), but I would have to pay a per visit fee, and so on.

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  14. sam says:

    Damn, sorry, that’s what you said. I guess I’m still a little surprised that I can get anything at all from the VA, and that’s coloring my perceptions of and reaction to the issue whenever it’s raised.

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  15. sam says:

    BTW, the only reason I can up with why they would allow guys like me to avail ourselves of VA care is the belief that it might take some of the pressure off Medicare (which I don’t use at the moment). Can anyone think of another reason?

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  16. GMay says:

    While I can easily forget the partisan hack nature of wr’s post, he makes the point I wanted to – lifetime pensions and health benefits of congressmen.  How does Simpson feel about that?

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  17. James Joyner says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t one’s ability to receive free VA health care directly tied to their service-connected disability rating?

    Also, as the AP piece quoted in the post notes, under current law all manner of things — including diabetes — are considered service connected if the veteran was exposed to Agent Orange.  The law basically starts from the premise that, if the government can’t prove it wasn’t caused by Agent Orange, they’ll assume it was.  That’s too lenient.

    And, yes, many of these people would be eligible for care under Medicare anyway.  I don’t think anyone is suggesting they shouldn’t get it if that’s the case.

     

    Funny how Simpson wants to cut medical care for veterans and slash Social Security for greedy seniors, but it never seems to cross his mind to suggest eliminating pensions and lifetime health benefits for former senators. What a perfect Republican!

    I don’t happen to think that elected politicians should be eligible for pensions. But the two are certainly different things.  First, there are a hell of a lot more of us veterans than former congress critters, so the cost issues aren’t comparable.   Second, pensions are more closely related to retirement benefits service members get after 20 or more years of service.  Nobody’s saying we should get rid of those (although there has been tinkering over the years with the formula).

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  18. Brummagem Joe says:

    “And this is just Simpson being Simpson. I was sort of a fan of his acerbic wit back in the day.”

    Since my own is largely of the acerbic variety Doug (you may have noticed although I try to rein it in here!) I’m not out of sympathy with Simpson but the 350,000 teats comment was ill judged given the importance of the task he’s been given and its sensitivity.

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  19. Brummagem Joe says:

    “First, there are a hell of a lot more of us veterans than former congress critters, so the cost issues aren’t comparable.  ”

    Not in overall terms Jim but on a per capita basis I’ll bet the politicians blow the vets out of the water. It’s also a matter of symbolism. Multi millionaire senators collecting pensions and with cradle to grave health coverage giving lectures to the populace about cutting pensions and benefits definitely belongs in the let them eat cake department.   

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  20. reid says:

    When I think of Simpson now, I think of his appearance on Maher a few years ago.  I’m not even sure what set him off, but he turned into a nasty crank.  I understand Maher’s style, politics, and sometimes snarky humor can turn some people off, but it didn’t reflect well on Simpson.

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  21. ponce says:

    The VA’s $125 billion annual budget is…not tiny.

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  22. G.A.Phillips says:

    ***I think the same treatment (cut benefits) should be the same for all politician’s as well.***

    You think:), how about any one that becomes a millionaire in any way shape or form working for the people never gets any benefits at all except for secret service? How about 250K……

    And I’m sure most of them can save us more money and create some jobs by hiring their own bodyguards.

    And have no doubt I mean every type of benefits, like housing and fancy new offices and gulfstreams.

    And any bullcrap artist in the political go green energy movement can get dragged behind a dang cargo plane in a glider, I am sure the Army or Air Force has some of them just siting around collecting dust.
     
    Wish I was the budget czar……

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  23. Franklin says:

    Also, as the AP piece quoted in the post notes, under current law all manner of things — including diabetes — are considered service connected if the veteran was exposed to Agent Orange.  The law basically starts from the premise that, if the government can’t prove it wasn’t caused by Agent Orange, they’ll assume it was.  That’s too lenient.

    Well it seems like the rules are basically right, but it’s just particularly bad in this situation because of the tenuous or non-existent link between Agent Orange and diabetes, and the fact that diabetes is so prevalent (and not just among vets!)
     

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  24. rodney dill says:

    ***I think the same treatment (cut benefits) should be the same for all politician’s as well.***
    You think:),

    I brought this up because member of the Michigan legislature get free health care for life after just one term. Though they have made some attempts to rescind this.

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  25. [...] Alan Simpson: Cut Veteran Disability Payments (outsidethebeltway.com) [...]

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  26. Duane Brudvig says:

    Wouldn’t it be a breach of contract if the veterans are to take cuts for the debt? I know what would be a good way to pay the debt down is ask the politics who took it down to pay and the next time there is an important war to have them go or send their family members. Then when they come home wounded they can pay down that war debt.

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