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Vets Sue Rumsfeld Over Health Care Cuts

Associated Press | May 25, 2005

WASHINGTON - Residents of a historic retirement home for war veterans filed a class-action lawsuit Tuesday against Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, asserting that the Pentagon chief has imposed excessive and illegal cutbacks in on-site medical and dental services.

The suit was filed in federal court on behalf of the nearly 1,000 residents at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington, one of two such institutions managed by the Defense Department.

The home's chief financial officer, Steve McManus, said in an interview that the residents who filed the complaint do not fully understand the reasons for some of the changes. He said they have not only saved money but also produced efficiencies and improvements.

``We're really trying to improve the benefits for our residents and create the foundation for the financial stability of the Armed Forces Retirement Home,'' McManus said. The budget for operating the home has fallen from about $63 million last year to $58 this year, he said.

In their complaint, the home's residents said Rumsfeld has a ready remedy for the financial problems that led to the cutbacks in services and staffing, but he has chosen not to act.

They said Congress gave the Pentagon authority in 1994 to increase one source of the home's operating funds - a 50-cent-per-month payroll deduction paid by every enlisted member and warrant officer in the military. Raising it to $1 per month would generate $7 million a year in new revenue, the suit says.

The retirement home's operating costs are borne mainly by a trust fund and by monthly fees paid by its residents. Another source of revenue are the fines and forfeitures levied upon members of the active-duty military in judicial proceedings.

The lawsuit also named as a defendant the Pentagon official who manages the home, Timothy Cox.

By law the Armed Forces Retirement Homes, in Washington and in Gulfport, Miss., must provide ``on-site primary care, medical care and a continuum of long-term care services.'' In an April 27, 2004 letter to the residents group that was pushing for a reversal of cutbacks, Cox asserted that the reduced level of services was in compliance with the law, according to the lawsuit.

A spokesman for the group, Homer C. Rutherford, a retired Air Force senior master sergeant who has lived at the home for three years, said he had personally appealed to staff members of the House and Senate armed services committees to address the problem, but to no avail.

``This is why we're following through with this class-action suit,'' he said in an interview Monday. ``We feel we have nowhere else to go, and we feel that it is something that is vitally necessary for the health and welfare of the American veterans who are here at the home.''

Among the cutbacks cited by Rutherford and other residents are the closing in 2003 of the home's main clinic and an on-site pharmacy, elimination of on-site X-ray and electrocardiogram services and reductions in annual physicals as well as the number of on-site dentists.

The retirement home, previously known as the Soldiers' and Airmen's Home, was opened in 1851 for wounded and disabled war veterans. Four of the original buildings are still standing and are registered as national historic landmarks.

Veterans can live there if their active duty service in the military was at least 50 percent enlisted or warrant officer. They must have served on active duty for at least 20 years and be at least 60 years old. Also eligible are veterans unable to earn a living due to a service-related disability or whose disability is not service related but who served in a war zone.

All female veterans who served before 1948 are eligible.

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