The Democratic response to the presidential radio address was delivered today by Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who criticized President Bush's proposed budget cuts to veterans' services and a new $250 "user fee" charged to many veterans to qualify for health care.
I'm Ed Rendell, the governor of Pennsylvania.
America's governors are united in our commitment to the troops who put their lives on the line in our global fight to combat terrorism and bring peace to Iraq. In fact, we as governors have a new role that we've never faced before in a major international conflict. Unlike any war in recent history, citizen soldiers are fighting this war -- 40 percent of all the troops are from National Guard units or reservists. We receive painful notice when our citizens die on the battlefield or suffer serious wounds in combat. Among the American servicemen and -women killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan are 69 Pennsylvanians whose sacrifice helped build those new democracies.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, more than 14,000 Pennsylvania National Guard members have left the comfort of their homes to risk their lives for our security. Every American had to be deeply moved at seeing the sense of pride in the Iraqi people as they courageously went to the polls at the end of January. The families of the brave servicemen and -women from all 50 states now know for sure that their loved ones did not die in vain.
This war has reminded us of the solemn pledge our nation makes to our veterans. We ask our soldiers to risk their lives and in return we promise to care for them as veterans -- tending to their injuries, their families and their livelihoods. That seems to be the very least we can do to repay their selfless acts of courage.
This nation is graced with 26 million veterans. We try to do our best by our veterans in Pennsylvania. We provide nursing home care, for some children of veterans we run a terrific public boarding school. We provide financial help to meet real emergencies and to others we provide low-interest loans. We aid our disabled veterans by helping pay for college for their kids. We also help those who serve our nation. Our state employees who are called into active service are given two weeks extra vacation and an additional $500 a month while they are deployed.
All of our governors are continuing to find innovative ways to reach out and help the families of our troops and the soldiers when they return. In New Mexico, Gov. Richardson signed into law the National Guard Insurance Benefit, which will provide every active duty member of the New Mexico National Guard $250,000 in life insurance. In Iowa, Gov. Vilsack signed legislation allowing state employees activated to military service to maintain their state health insurance benefits. In New Hampshire, Gov. Lynch launched Operation Welcome Home. Like a good friend, Operation Welcome Home lends a helping hand to returning guards and reservists -- loaning money to them to meet their emergency financial problems and leading them to good jobs, and when necessary, even locating new apartments.
While we the governors do all we can for our vets and our returning soldiers, our federal government still has the primary responsibility for meeting the needs of our veterans. And that's why I find the president's budget cuts for critical veterans services to be unconscionable. In fact the budget cut includes a $350 million reduction in veterans' home funding, which wipes out at least 5,000 veterans nursing home beds. Pennsylvania has six veterans' homes that house and care for 1,600 proud vets. If the president's proposed budget cuts are enacted, nearly 60 percent of the 1,600 veterans will lose their daily stipend that allows them to stay in our state's nursing homes -- literally forcing them out into the cold.
Two years ago the federal government tripled the veterans' co-pays for prescription drugs. Now the president is proposing to again double those increased co-pays. But in the midst of a war -- when many new men and women will join the legion of veterans -- does it really make sense for the president to increase the cost of vets' prescriptions by 100 percent? The president also proposes an annual $250 fee to be paid by every vet wishing to participate in the Veteran's Administration health care program. There may well be some veterans who can afford to do so, but can all vets come up with an extra $250 a year to pay for health care? I doubt it!
Each and every day the life of a soldier serving overseas is filled with conflict, anxiety and a longing to return home to their families. We as governors do all we can within our limited resources to show our gratitude to the heroes who return home. During this time of war, it is absolutely the wrong time for our federal government to step back from any of its commitment to our veterans. To do so would be penny wise but pound-foolish. In today's parlance -- the cost of health care for these vets may be a half a billion dollars; but their sacrifice for our nation, priceless!
Every patriotic American should take the time to contact their congressman and senators and tell them to just say no to President Bush's budget cuts for services to our veterans. It's a matter of honor and patriotism.