Gay vets’ benefits at risk?

By Lara Ballard

Originally published on February 01 2005 1:00 AM ET

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.