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U.s. Move Angers Vets Who Smoked

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U.S. move angers vets who smoked
Health care may bedenied in budget deal;
veterans say militarygot them smoking

By Bob Dart
American-Statesman WashingtonStaff

Published: April 4, 1998

WASHINGTON -- Tobacco ispart of the military memories ofmillions of Americans. Drill sergeants barked, "Smoke 'em ifyou've got 'em," during breaks inbasic training. Free mini-packs ofcigarettes were included in the K-rations that soldiers opened in thefoxholes of World War II, and inthe C-rations that grunts consumed in several wars. PXs soldcartons at bargain prices at basesaround the world.

After serving in military unitsthat facilitated -- if not encouraged -- smoking, many veteransare now angry that the Clinton administration and Congress arebalking at paying billions of dollars in disability and health-carecosts for tobacco-related diseasesthat the veterans claim are connected to their service.

"The facts show that the military pushed a dangerous, addictive drug on its troops," said BillRusso, director of the benefits program for the Vietnam Veterans ofAmerica. "Therefore, veteransmust be fairly compensated forsmoking-related diseases."

The Clinton administration disagrees. In its proposed budget toCongress, the Department of Veterans Affairs said it expected tosave $17 billion over the next fiveyears by denying the expectedclaims of 500,000 veterans seekingcompensation for smoking-relateddiseases. Congressional approvalis required, but both the Senateand House budget committeeshave endorsed the cutoff.

Ken McKinnon, a VA spokesman, said a veteran's lung cancershouldn't be classified as a service-related illness if he startedsmoking in World War II and thencontinued for half a century of civilian life. The use of tobacco wasa personal choice made by somemembers of the military and unrelated to their duties, the VAmaintains.

Many in Congress seem inclined to agree.

"I don't think anybody in America believes you should be entitledto get money from the federal government for being a smoker,"said House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. "It is not service-connected. It is not related toanything that happened to you inthe military."

The issue is complicated, however, because the VA's own lawyers have twice ruled -- in 1993and again last year -- that theagency is obligated to pay benefitsto veterans who can show thattheir illness is connected to smoking that began during their military service.

Such claims are currently beingpaid, and payments will not bestopped on any claim approved before Congress acts, McKinnonsaid. Service-related disabilitypayments range from $95 to $1,964a month, and providing VA medical care for these illnesses can costmany times that much, he said.

The Clinton administrationwants to stop such payments, andveterans groups believe the Housetacitly went along when it approved a $218 billion transportation bill this week. Money thatwould have been used for the VAto pay smoking-related claims byveterans was included as $10.5 billion of cuts used to finance thetransportation bill, the veteransgroup charge.

"Congress robbing disabled veterans to pay for roads, bridges andtrains is outrageous public policy," George Duggins, president ofthe Vietnam Veterans of America,wrote in a letter to all members ofCongress.

All of the nation's major veterans organizations are lobbying forthe VA to provide health care anddisability compensation for tobacco-related problems.

"Taking money from sick veterans to build highways in an election year is an extraordinarily badidea," warned Anthony Jordan,commander of the 2.9 million-member American Legion, the nation's largest veterans group.

The VA says the costs of covering claims by veterans and theirsurvivors for smoking-related ailments would be immense. Payingfor the benefits out of the VA budget could "endanger the integrity"of the agency's system of healthcare and disability benefits,McKinnon said.

In a report to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, a researcher said that 75.4 percent ofall veterans have smoked -- 20percentage points higher than thegeneral population. Jeffrey Harris, a Massachusetts Institute ofTechnology professor, said providing benefits for all veterans' smoking-related illnesses would cost $5billion the first year.

Veterans advocates argue thatthe costs are being exaggerated.

"Actually, these claims are veryhard to win, since a veteran mustprove (with medical evidence)that their disease is the result ofsmoking in service or smoking after getting addicted to cigarettesin service," Russo told the SenateCommittee on Veterans Affairsthis week.

The veterans' benefits are notpart of any proposed settlementwith the tobacco industry.

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