Veterans groups fear that while Congress fiddles with healthcare reform in 1994, the chances for much-needed improvement of the Department of Veterans Affairs health system will get burned.
"We're not going to sit back stupidly and watch a real chance for reform go up in smoke," said John Hanson, director of national veterans affairs for the American Legion. "If the president's plan doesn't pass, we're going to have our work cut out for us because the sponsors of other plans haven't even mentioned the VA."
President Clinton's plan is a good-news-bad-news proposition for proponents of reforming the 171-hospital VA system, which costs the government $15 billion a year.
On one hand, the plan contains almost all the reforms they've been seeking, including opening the VA health system to all veterans, or eligibility reform, and allowing the VA to collect reimbursements from third-party payers such as Medicare and the Department of Defense.
On the other hand, the reforms the VA system must have to survive are tied to national healthcare reform, which could be bottled up in Congress for years.
"Because of the way the (Clinton) administration and Congress decided to proceed, they have essentially blocked VA eligibility and healthcare reform from moving separately," said Dennis Cullinan, deputy director of national legislative services for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
While everyone wants comprehensive national healthcare reform to pass, veterans' service organizations say they must be ready if momentum for reform begins to stall.
"If healthcare reform founders, we really need to push for the VA pieces to be passed," Mr. Cullinan said. "The question is: Would the (Clinton) administration allow it?"
Mr. Hanson agreed.
"I'm trying to be optimistic, but I'm really concerned," he said. "The VA needs these reforms to survive. It's one of the least controversial aspects of the president's plan."
There is a scenario under which the VA could flourish if reform stalls.
"In a way, it would almost be beneficial to the VA if healthcare reform did founder because then they wouldn't have to be burdened with the healthcare reform debate," Mr. Cullinan said.