Candidates Diverge On Vets' Health Care, GI Bill

Barack Obama and John McCain used addresses to the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars to spell out their differences on foreign policy. They also addressed the topics of health care and other benefits for veterans.

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When Barack Obama and John McCain spoke to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the annual convention in Florida, they addressed a subject that hits close to home for many vets: health care. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: At a town hall meeting in Lima, Ohio this month, John McCain fielded a question from a man whose son served two Army tours in Iraq. He's home now, the man said, and he's got some problems.

Unidentified Man: We have a local VA system that is not very well equipped to handle a lot of things. He has to go to Dayton, which is fine, but it takes six months to get in down there.

HORSLEY: The man wanted to know what McCain would do to help his son and other veterans get the treatment they need. It was the perfect opening for one of McCain's signature proposals.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): I want to give every one of these veterans a plastic card. And you take that plastic card and you go to the doctor or the healthcare provider of your choice and you get the treatment you need, and you will not have...

(Soundbite of applause)

Sen. McCAIN: ...to stand in line to get an appointment to get an appointment.

HORSLEY: McCain told the VFW this week the plastic card is not meant to replace VA facilities, just provide an alternative. But the plan still worries Joe Violante, national legislative director for nearly one-and-a-half million disabled American veterans. Violante says the plan could deprive the VA of the critical mass of patients it needs.

Mr. JOE VIOLANTE (National Legislative Director for VA): Once you start eroding that base the VA has, you start increasing the cost to provide that care, we're going to see some changes. And those changes we don't believe would be good.

HORSLEY: Barack Obama seized on those concerns during his VFW speech yesterday, saying the federal government should strengthen the VA, not turn it into just another health insurer. Obama also criticized McCain for his initial opposition to Virginia Senator Jim Webb's new GI Bill of Rights, which the VFW supported.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): Everyone who serves this country should have the same opportunity that my grandfather had under the GI Bill. And that's why, unlike my opponent, I was a strong and early supporter of Jim Webb's GI Bill for the 21st Century, a bill that Senator McCain at the time called too generous.

HORSLEY: McCain wanted a less expensive version of the GI Bill that would encourage service members to stay in uniform. He told the VFW it wasn't just the price tag of Webb's measure he objected to.

Sen. McCAIN: The bill also did nothing to retain the young officer and enlisted leaders who form the backbone of our all-volunteer force.

HORSLEY: And that's a significant difference between the candidates. For McCain, taking care of veterans is primarily a national security issue, a down payment on future war-fighting ability. He regularly quotes George Washington, saying, young people's willingness to serve in war depends on the way veterans have been treated in the past. Obama also sees veteran's benefits as a way to build prosperity here at home, just as the original GI Bill did after World War II.

Sen. OBAMA: We must ensure that our brave troops serving abroad today become the backbone of our middle-class at home tomorrow. Those who fight to defend America abroad must have the chance to live their dreams at home through education and their ability to make a good living, through affordable healthcare, through a retirement that is dignified and secure.

HORSLEY: Obama's stress on the domestic economy is important to some veterans. Air Force veteran Frank Alvarez was disappointed last month when McCain spoke to his largely Latino veterans group and talked almost exclusively about the Iraq war.

Mr. FRANK ALVAREZ (Air Force Veteran): We wanted to hear something about some kind of a work project, a program like they had during the Depression. The roads are a mess, bridges are crumbling, infrastructure's messed up. We should be building schools here, not in Iraq.

HORSLEY: Nevertheless, McCain enjoys a big advantage over Obama with veterans generally, thanks in part to his own military service. At that town hall meeting in Lima, McCain took another question from a man wearing a VFW-style cap.

Unidentified Man: First off, I'd like to see if I can shake a hand of another hero.

Sen. McCAIN: Thank you, sir.

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: The audience cheered as the man limped to the center of Veterans' Memorial Civic Center and embraced McCain.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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