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Veterans health proposal dropped

Officials abandon plan after public outrage

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration on Wednesday abandoned a controversial plan to make veterans use private insurance to pay for costly treatments of combat-related injuries.

Stung by the angry reaction to the proposal, the administration made the decision after a meeting between officials from 11 veterans advocacy groups and top White House officials.

“Our voices were heard,” said Norbert Ryan, the president of the Military Officers Association of America. “They made the right decision on this.”

The plan would have reversed a longstanding policy of providing government health coverage for all service-related injuries. Few details emerged beyond its reported savings of $540 million, however.

Most veterans use private insurance only for health problems unrelated to their military service.

What was most puzzling to experienced activists and others was that the White House floated the idea in the first place. Several said the administration came off as politically tone deaf to the importance of the issue.

“They’ve grabbed hold of the ‘third rail’ and they shouldn’t have done this,” said Rick Weidman, director of government relations for Vietnam Veterans of America. “If they had asked anyone informally, we would have informed them, ‘Are you kidding? All hell will break loose.’ ”

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the intent of the plan had been to “maximize the resources available for veterans.”

Outrage quickly grew in the veteran community and beyond. Media superstars across the spectrum from Jon Stewart to Rush Limbaugh expressed disbelief at the idea, and it resonated across political and cultural borders.

In a tide of phone calls and e-mails, angry veterans and family members wondered if the administration’s next move might be to start charging military families for funerals.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans said making veterans pay for treatment of their war wounds and other service-related health problems violated the nation’s “sacred duty.”

Sen. Patty Murray, a high-ranking Democrat on the Senate’s Veterans Affairs and Budget committees, had grilled Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki about the proposal earlier this week and said she would oppose it. Within minutes after the White House announced it was dropping the plan, Murray said she applauded the decision and said it showed Obama had listened to veterans’ concerns.

“President Obama did the right thing in dropping this proposal,” said Murray, Washington’s senior senator. “Injured veterans and their families have already paid enough of a price; they shouldn’t have to worry about the tab for service-related care.”