Veterans Advocates Say Soldiers Getting Mixed Messages

Veterans Advocates Say Soldiers Getting Mixed Messages

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News Specialist Jed Boal reporting As the U.S. build-up in the Persian Gulf intensifies, veterans' advocates say the federal government is failing its veterans of past wars.

The American Legion wants the president and Congress to increase funding to the Veterans Administration.

The National Commander of the American Legion visited the VA hospital today and spelled out the shortfalls in the system.

Complaints include shortages of doctors and nurses, veterans unable to see doctors for months, and a government slow to make good on its promise to veterans.

Hurry up and wait. Soldiers hear that when they serve.

The American Legion says veterans get the same story when they try to see doctors at Veterans Administration Hospitals nationwide.

The American Legion says 300,000 veterans wait more than a month to see doctors. At some hospitals, they wait as long as two years.

In Salt Lake City, 500 veterans await VA access.

Commander Ron Conley says that sends a mixed message to soldiers.

"We want them to defend us against terrorists, but at the same time, we're sending them the message that when they get out of the service, don't come to the federal government for any health care, because we're not going to be able to afford to take care of you," Conley says.

Conley says Congress failed to address the VA budget, and the president has failed to deliver on promises to veterans.

"At the same time, we're asking young men and women to step forward, be patriotic, put on the military uniform and defend our Constitution," he says.

Underfunding troubles are not new for the Veterans Administration, but the commander of the American Legion says the problem has intensified in recent years.

The reason? More veterans simply want to use the services.

"We basically over the last four or five years have transformed the VA system into a world-class health care system," says Dr. Ronald Gebhart, chief of staff for the VA Medical Center.

In 1996, 22,000 veterans were signed up for service in Salt Lake. Today there are more than 31,000 -- a 44 percent increase in enrollment.

In 1996, 163,000 veterans visited a VA doctor. In 2002, nearly twice the number -- a 91 percent increase.

"We are getting to the point where we have people who are going to have to be in line and are going to have to wait before they can get in to see a provider," Gebhart says.

Whether Congress will appropriate more money for the VA remains to be seen. It won't likely look at the budget until March. That's when the commander expects to testify.

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