Gay vets’ benefits at risk?
As many as a million gay and lesbian veterans depend on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for health care—including many who can’t get HIV/AIDS care anywhere else. It’s reason enough for GLBT activists to keep an eye on the Bush administration’s coming cutbacks
On January 6 veterans across the country were shocked to learn that Republican congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey, the chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, had been ousted from his position in favor of the much more right-wing Republican Steve Buyer of Indiana.
Smith was widely regarded as a staunch defender of veterans’ benefits, and it is widely believed that the GOP removed him in order to replace him with someone who would be much more amenable than Smith had been to implementing severe cutbacks at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Does this matter at all to the GLBT community? You wouldn’t think so, from the reaction of GLBT rights organizations, which was silence. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a press release or public statement from any GLBT organization on any matter related to VA. I cannot find a single GLBT lobbyist who has contacts on either of the Veterans Affairs Committees, nor a single HIV/AIDS organization that will so much as provide a link from its Web site to VA’s HIV/AIDS information page.
But VA does matter to us a great deal. The Urban Institute estimates that there are well over a million GLBT veterans in the United States. We don’t know how many of them depend upon VA for health care, but we do know that VA is the nation’s single largest health care provider of HIV/AIDS-related services, with over 20,000 HIV-positive vets in the VA system, and that many other, primarily low-income GLBT vets depend on VA for treatment of other chronic conditions.
Many of those veterans may not be in the VA health care system for much longer.
In 1996, Congress changed VA’s eligibility criteria, allowing most honorably discharged veterans with income under about $30,000 a year to receive care at VA medical centers, regardless of whether they are disabled or ever served in a war zone. Elderly veterans without prescription coverage quickly learned that they could receive prescription drugs from VA and began crowding into VA hospitals, tripling VA’s patient caseload in just a few short years.
Rather than respond by either increasing the VA’s funding or, better yet, solving the national prescription drug crisis, the Bush administration, with the assistance of people like Buyer, is expected to propose a return to the pre-1996 eligibility criteria, possibly in the next term. The effect would be to throw several million veterans, many of whom are uninsured, out on the street. A gay friend of mine who is receiving treatment from VA for his stage 4 cancer says, if that happens, “I guess I’ll just go out on the White House lawn and die there in protest.” And forget about adding HIV to the VA’s list of “catastrophic disabilities,” which entitles veterans to health care regardless of their income level, a proposal that will almost certainly fall by the wayside now.
What can you do about this?
You can start by getting involved with a veterans’ organization—if not my own organization, American Veterans for Equal Rights, then one of the mainstream organizations. Don’t assume that these groups will be hostile or homophobic. Vietnam Veterans of America, for example, sent its head lobbyist to speak at AVER’s recent convention. Most of these organizations, like The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and AMVETS, are hungry for new members, especially younger veterans. Getting involved with them is a great way to build bridges between the GLBT and straight communities, and there are few nobler causes than helping out our nation’s veterans in their hour of need.
Lara Ballard is a regional vice president of American Veterans for Equal Rights, a nationwide grassroots network of GLBT veterans and allies. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org