WASHINGTON – The top official of the American Legion, which represents nearly 3 million wartime veterans, said Wednesday that President Bush let down all men and women who served in the Armed Forces when he canceled funds for their medical care.
Bush announced Wednesday that he would not release a $5.1 billion bundle in emergency spending because Congress, attaching an all-or-nothing condition, lumped in millions of dollars in programs that Bush did not request and that were unrelated to the bill's homeland security mission.
Included in the package that Bush rejected was $275 million for the Department of Veterans Affairs to reduce backlogs at the nation's VA medical centers.
More than 300,000 veterans new to the VA system are on waiting lists -- some more than one year long -- for the initial medical exams they need in order to qualify for prescription drug benefits, said Richard Santos, national commander of the American Legion.
"If that's not an emergency, then nothing is," Santos said Wednesday.
He recalled how Bush, as a presidential candidate, pledged to the Legion's 2000 national convention that he would, if elected, "work with Congress to raise the standard of service not just for veterans, but for our military retirees."
Now, said Santos, "we feel we've been let down. A verbal promise in front of 6,000 people is something you have to keep."
White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said the $275 million that was blocked would have provided less than five days of operating funds "and won't solve the problem of the backlog in the 46 days that we have left in this fiscal year."
For the budget year that begins Oct. 1, she noted, Bush asked for a $1.9 billion increase for veterans' medical care.
"The president believes that those who served our country deserve excellent health care and the president has a strong record on behalf of America's veterans," Buchan said.