After months of prodding by the Clinton administration and Democratic leaders in Congress, veterans groups are entering the healthcare fray.
Unfortunately for supporters of the Clinton administration, the effort stops well short of endorsing the Clinton healthcare plan or its major tenets: universal coverage and employer mandates to pay for health insurance.
Ten of the largest veterans groups, which have dubbed themselves the Partnership for Health Care Reform, last week began running a series of advertisements, primarily in Washington newspapers. The groups reportedly are spending less than $1 million on the campaign.
The ads call on Congress to incorporate the healthcare reform plans passed by the House and Senate veterans committees into the reform plans being developed by House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine).
"They're on board now, but on board for what is the question," said one Democratic congressional aide. "We would have loved for them to come forward with more adamant support of the Clinton reform plan, but they didn't and that's that."
The Clinton plan includes provisions that would allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to compete with other providers for veterans as a separate managed-care plan. It also would infuse more than $3 billion in infrastructure improvements into the aging VA healthcare system. The House and Senate veterans committees have passed legislation similar to the Clinton plan.
The decision to begin running the ads was a calculated risk by the veterans groups. For months, the Clinton administration and its allies privately criticized veterans groups for not showing support for the Clinton plan. For example, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.), whose committee eventually deadlocked on reform, was upset with veterans when they refused to lobby maverick Democrats for the Clinton-style plan Mr. Dingell was pushing.
The pressure has, so far, had very little effect. Only the Paralyzed Veterans of America has endorsed several aspects of the Clinton plan, including the home- and community-based-care provisions. More conservative veterans groups wouldn't back the Clinton reform plan.
By running their ads now, the groups risk further alienating the Democratic leadership when they need it most.
"There are some Democrats who are very aggravated with us, but we have no business (supporting the Clinton plan)," said David Gorman, assistant national legislative director for medical affairs at the Disabled American Veterans. "This is the time for us to be parochial. We really need to focus on the VA system."
The groups decided to run the ads because they saw their opportunity for reform slipping away, spokesmen said.