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If a veterans' health care bill drafted by the American Legion is approved by Congress, it will be as significant as the original G.I. Bill, says the commander of the 3 million-member veterans' group.

Daniel A. Ludwig is in Salt Lake City for the American Legion's 78th national convention, which opens Saturday in the Salt Palace Convention Center. The gathering, which ends next Thursday, is expected to draw 6,000 delegates and alternates from around the country.The new G.I. Bill of Health would have "equal stature and significance to the original G.I. Bill," he added. It was introduced in Congress on Aug. 2 by Rep. James Longley, R-Maine.

One provision of the bill would allow military retirees to be covered as veterans as soon as they leave the service. They are entitled to retirement after 20 years, but under the present setup their health needs are covered by the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Uniformed Services.

The new bill would allow that veterans, military retirees and their dependents to use their existing Medicare, Medicaid, CHAMPUS and other health benefit plan to pay for VA medical care. Retirees who reach 65 then go onto Medicare.

Veterans on Medicare are presently excluded from VA care, something the bill would change. "We're saying a veteran is a veteran is a veteran," Ludwig said.

According to the Legion, other benefits of the bill include:

- All veterans with service-connected illness or disabilities of 50 percent or greater would have access to the same Veterans Affairs service to which they are eligible now, at no charge.

- Indigent veterans and those with a disability rated less than 50 percent, plus some other special veterans, would have access to VA health care at either no charge or at a reduced charge.

- All catastrophically ill veterans would have access to the VA system.

- Veterans and their dependents will be allowed to enroll in various levels of health-care coverage.

- The VA system would collect and keep payment for its services.

The law now provides that the VA must put all third-party insurance payments into the Treasury. Allowing the agency to keep the payments would let it upgrade facilities.