, Salem, MA


August 22, 2013

Column: Pay for veterans' care now, or pay more later

When the next generation looks back on Iraq and Afghanistan they will see that one of the steepest costs of these wars was the obligation we incurred to our veterans.

Two and a half million Americans have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. Approximately 700,000 have received disability status. More than 250,000 personnel have endured a traumatic brain injury; 125,000 have received a post-traumatic stress diagnosis; and 1,500 have lost a limb.

The obligation we have to these veterans is a moral one but it will be measured in dollar terms, a massive cost arriving just as Congress and the White House attempt to control the budget. Fortunately doing the right thing also is the prudent thing. The Pentagon and Veterans Administration can control long-term costs by cooperating to make sure that veterans get their needed care right now.

But they’re not. Instead, they’re letting bureaucratic gamesmanship push private health-care providers onto the sideline as well.

Linda Bilmes, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, has itemized the United States’ financial commitment to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in sobering detail. In April the VA and Social Security Disability tab ran to $970 billion, of which $134 billion has already been spent and $836 billion will come over the next 40 years. Layered on top of this sum are unspecified, Pentagon-incurred costs of treating war-related health issues for veterans still on active duty.

The burden we place on our armed forces and on our taxpayers will continue increasing as long as we remain in Afghanistan. Once we leave, though, it should plateau — so long as we tend to wartime wounds rather than letting them fester. Veterans’ health care is no different from any other when it comes to the proverb that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. On the other hand, the converse also is true — obligations we postpone will cost even more later.

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