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LET VA HOSPITAL BEDS STAY EMPTY?

This nation owes a big debt of gratitude and compassion to its military veterans, especially those injured in serving their country.

Surely some of those who work to fulfill that obligation can also use their skills to help non-veterans, too, without stinting on service men and women. But, sadly, that's not how veterans organizations see it.The other day the Veterans Administration abandoned plans to open a couple of VA hospitals to treat non-veterans in rural areas. The VA did so after the Senate voted overwhelmingly to deny financing for the modest project. The Senate, in turn, knuckled under to unreasoning pressure from veterans groups.

All in all, the episode represented the triumph of emotion over common sense and of short-sighted selfishness over the long-range public interest.

The veterans groups, insisting that the plan would have diverted already shrinking resources away from veterans, refused even to discuss the matter with the VA on any basis except that involved in junking the proposal.

Yet the plan would have involved only two rural VA hospitals in the South - one in Salem, Va., the other in Tuskegee, Ala. The idea was to open VA hospitals to care for non-veterans only in areas where other medical facilities are scarce. The two hospitals were chosen because they have more beds than they are using. No veterans would have been denied care.

In voting not to finance the VA's plan, the Senate seems to have forgotten a 1989 study by the General Accounting Offices that found one in every five veterans receiving federal disability payments is getting the money for medical problems not caused or aggravated by military service.

In other words, Washington is spending more money than can be justified on some veterans while refusing to let non-veterans occupy beds in VA hospitals that will remain empty without them.

This awkward policy stance simply cannot be justified except on the basis of letting a powerful special group prevail over the broader public interest - and that's no justification at all.