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Letter to The Honorable James B. Peake, MD, Secretary of Veterans Affairs

Senate and House Veterans Committees Urge VA to Open Its Doors to Middle-Income Veterans

Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI), Chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, and Congressman Bob Filner (D-CA), Chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, sent a letter today urging VA Secretary James B. Peake to raise the income threshold that currently bars veterans making as little as $28,430 a year from the VA health care system. Under current law, Secretary Peake has the authority to redefine the income threshold at his discretion.

"The current ban on enrollment is far too restrictive for middle-class veterans, who served our nation honorably but cannot receive health care from VA. I am encouraged by Secretary Peake's willingness to reconsider the current income threshold, and I hope that we can work together to bring world-class health care to more veterans who need it," said Akaka.

Majority members of both Committees joined Akaka and Filner in signing the letter: Senators John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV), Patty Murray (D-WA), Barack Obama (D-IL), Bernard Sanders (I-VT), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Jim Webb (D-VA), Jon Tester (D-MT); and Representatives Corrine Brown, Michael H. Michaud, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, John J. Hall, Shelley Berkley, Ciro Rodriguez, Joe Donnelly, Jerry McNerney, Zachary T. Space, and Harry E. Mitchell.

On January 17, 2003, the Bush Administration banned enrollment of "Priority 8" veterans into the VA health care system due to resource constraints. Priority 8's are non service-connected veterans who exceed a certain income cap, currently as low as $28,430 in some regions. VA estimates that as many as 1.5 million middle-income veterans have been denied, or are awaiting, enrollment into the VA health care system due to this restriction. At a Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs' budget hearing on February 13, 2008, Secretary Peake expressed a willingness to consider modifying the Priority 8 income threshold.

In their letter, Akaka and his colleagues noted that the Priority 8 ban was implemented under the rationale that VA lacked the resources to care for all veterans. Responding to that issue, they noted that last year, Congress provided VA with the largest funding increase in the Department's 77-year history, and underscored their commitment to bringing VA enough resources to care for more veterans.

"VA should be available to all veterans - whether they were fortunate enough to have escaped injury during their service or not," Akaka stated. "It is time to move back in that direction."

The Committee's omnibus health care package, S. 1233, contains a provision that would allow all Priority 8 veterans back into the VA health care system by rescinding the ban issued in 2003. However, due to opposition from Republican members to this provision, the bill is currently stalled in the Senate. Chairman Akaka plans to continue to push for an up-or-down vote on this vital legislation in the Senate.

A copy of the letter is below:

March 14, 2008

The Honorable James B. Peake, MD
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20420
Dear Secretary Peake:

We write to ask you to address the ban on enrollment of middle-income veterans - so-called Priority 8 veterans - who wish to receive their health care through VA. VA's own estimates suggest that as many as 1.5 million middle-income veterans are still awaiting, or have been denied, enrollment. Many earn as little as $28,430 per year.

As Secretary, you have full authority to redefine the income threshold for eligibility, and we urge you to do so in order to allow more veterans entry into the VA health care system. You stated before the Senate Committee on February 13, 2008, that you would be willing to examine raising the threshold and would work with the Committee to this end. We are following up on that pledge.

The President banned enrollment of new Priority 8 veterans on January 17, 2003. The rationale for the ban was overcrowding in the VA health care system. Yet, in testimony before the Senate Committee on February 13, 2008, you stated that VA is on track to "virtually eliminate the waiting list [for health care appointments] by the end of next year."

Given that Congress recently provided VA, in the Fiscal Year 2008 Consolidated Appropriations Act, with a record funding increase of $6.7 billion over Fiscal Year 2007, we believe that VA has the capacity and resources to serve more middle-income veterans. We also note that many Priority 8 veterans have private health care coverage and would be subject to existing copayments for care. These veterans would effectively bring revenue into the system and would offset some of the cost of their care.

Mr. Secretary, we urge you to investigate real options for re-opening the VA health care system to middle-income veterans. We look forward to working with you to meet our mutual obligation to those who have served our country.

Sincerely,

Daniel K. Akaka
Bob Filner
John D. Rockefeller IV,
Patty Murray,
Barack Obama
Bernard Sanders
Sherrod Brown
Jim Webb
Jon Tester
Corrine Brown
Michael H. Michaud
Stephanie Herseth Sandlin
John J. Hall
Shelley Berkley
Ciro Rodriguez
Joe Donnelly
Jerry McNerney
Zachary T. Space
Harry E. Mitchell


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