Letter from the Editor

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Caring for vets, not their hospital

One's initial impression at the news that the Iowa Veterans Hospital in Knoxville is being phased out and likely closed up is predictable.

Something along the lines of "You @#$%&*s!"

And indeed, Iowa's veteran inpatient system has served the state well for half a century. It allowed us to take care of those who took care of us when called. It let us pay back the debts as best we could.

Some older veterans see this government closing, and they feel understandably betrayed, and worried.

After a lot of thinking, I suspect that Veterans Affairs is making the right decision for the right reasons - but I can't say yet that I trust the government to invest the savings from closing the old vet hospitals fairly - that is, plowing it back into the services needed by veterans - be they the aging World War II warriors, the Vietnam and Korea vets feeling the mental and physiological strain of their experience, or the new generation of Iraq and Afghanistan servicepeople, paying the price in insurgent bullets and road mines.

While our debt to our veterans will never change, medical care does. Old facilities become outmoded and underused. We cannot have our veterans given second best.

That probably means sinking resources into making the Des Moines veterans' hospital the best it can be, to be sure that it is prepared to serve the intensive care inpatient needs of veterans, and staffed not only with exceptional medical personnel - but people who understand the specific needs of veterans.

And it means realizing that health care has moved away from long stays in a hospital bed, and toward outpatient clinics that provide an array of medical services designed to keep people in their homes.

If we lose Knoxville, the state is supposed to gain six regional clinics. One should be in Storm Lake, and it is unfortunate that the local numbers were ignored in that process.

The biggest issue now is not whether services are available for veterans - but getting them there. This community is blessed with a fine group of volunteers who drive elderly or infirm veterans around to the appointments they need at various veterans facilities.

It strikes me that often, those same services could be provided here in Storm Lake, or in locations much closer to home. In the end, that's what the system will need - not just a central veterans facility available when called on, but a public health network that is fully geared up to serve veterans and their issues.

Why shouldn't every Iowa hospital, every clinic, every county health department, every public counseling service, be a veterans facility?

We are not necessarily failing our veterans if they board up the hospital at Knoxville. But we will sure be failing them if we don't make sure Veterans Services and Congress live up to their promises to use those savings to make services for these proud Americans better, more accessible.

That's the battle we face today. And it shouldn't have to be fought by our ailing fathers and grandfathers. It's about time we fought a little bit for them.

Did you notice, two days before Christmas, that the U.S. government quietly announced $300 million in cuts to the Pell grant program?

In Iowa alone, that is likely to mean that 900 students who would have been eligible will go without aid, and 13,000 could see their grants reduced.

The Pell Grant is a blue-collar program that makes college affordable for low and moderate-income families that otherwise might not be able to afford it. It seems the program is running something of a deficit, and cutting the funding will ensure that the very poorest will still have access to aid, officials say.

The program has worked beautifully, relatively unchanged for the past 17 years. Is there really a sudden crisis now? And why isn't the government guaranteeing that the savings will go back into the program?

I hate to see the Pell messed with. Without it, this writer might never have been able to work his way through school. We have spent generations convincing teens that higher education should be an expectation - are we going to start telling them now that it's only for the rich and the poor?