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Washington at odds over VA funding

Sixth congressional district Democratic candidate Tammy Duckworth waits to speak at a campaign event in October 2006. Duckworth, a former helicopter pilot who lost both of her legs in Iraq, lost a narrow race to Republican Peter Roskam for the House seat but was appointed the director of the Illinois Veterans' Affairs Department in November.

TEXT OF STORY

Doug Krizner: Disabled American Veterans wait months, sometimes years to receive benefits from the VA. Before a vet can get benefits, they need a disability rating, and there's an enormous backlog of that process. Some in Congress want funding to cut the wait, but, as Steve Henn reports, more money may not provide all the answers.


Steve Henn: The Veterans Administration offers a host of benefits like health care and job training to disabled vets. But these benefits are only available after vets receive a disability rating from the VA.

Marvin Hipolito thinks of himself as one of the lucky ones. He received a rating quickly.

Marvin Hipolito: Somehow I'm pretty fortunate that they classified me. They gave me 70 percent.

Meaning Hipolito is 70 percent disabled. He battles arthritis, migraines and a partial hearing loss. But after he received a disability rating, he got job training, health care and a host of other services. Now, he has a job at the Federal Aviation Administration and is building a new life.

Hipolito: To be disabled, I don't even think about it. I feel like I'm normal. If I'm in pain, that's part of life and there's no sense dwelling on it. I just keep moving.

While Hipolito got help quickly, many disabled vets don't. Right now, there are more than 400,000 veterans still waiting in line.

Ed Reese: There's more than 100,000 cases that's been waiting more than six months.

Ed Reese at Disabled American Veterans says this backlog creates huge problems for returning vets.

Reese: They have to wait, yes they do.

Linda Bilmes is an economist at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Linda Bilmes: You are stuck.

She studied the problems at the VA.

Bilmes: You can't get your veteran's benefits for quite a long time, but once you leave the military, you lose your military benefits.

The House and Senate have proposed adding 1,000 new positions at the VA to help cut down the wait. And that's just one piece of a bill that would boost funding for the Veterans Administration by almost $7.5 billion this year.

Congressional Republicans prefer automation to hiring new staff, saying training would take too much time. And the Bush White House has signaled a possible veto, saying it's not happy with the price tag.

But Linda Bilmes say these increased costs are just the beginning. She estimates that the total cost of providing health care to Veterans disabled in Iraq and Afghanistan will easily exceed $250 billion over their lifetimes.

In Washington, I'm Steve Henn for Marketplace.

About the author

Steve Henn was Marketplace’s technology and innovation reporter for the entire portfolio of Marketplace programs until December 2011.

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