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Quicker health care for veterans sought

As soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan put added pressure on veterans' hospitals, a new bill could help shorten the waiting list for all veterans, members of North Dakota's congressional delegation said Wednesday.

As soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan put added pressure on veterans' hospitals, a new bill could help shorten the waiting list for all veterans, members of North Dakota's congressional delegation said Wednesday.

Sen. Kent Conrad has introduced a bill that would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide medical care within 30 days of a veteran seeking an appointment.

"We have asked our nation's veterans to go in harm's way to protect the liberties and freedoms of this country," he said. "The least we should owe them is that they get the very best medical care and they get it on a timely basis."

Some veterans who testified at a recent hearing in Bismarck said they had to wait up to a year for an appointment, Conrad said Wednesday, speaking at the VA Medical Center in Fargo.

Conrad's bill, co-sponsored by four other Democrats, calls for a two-year test project that would set a mandatory 30-day deadline for the VA to meet appointments for primary care.

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If the VA hospital couldn't provide the care, it would issue a voucher and arrange care for the veteran at a community or private facility.

The pilot project would use three sites, including one in a rural setting and one in a very rural setting.

"Frankly, both those could be targeted to North Dakota," Conrad said.

Rep. Earl Pomeroy has introduced a companion bill in the House.

"To think that awaiting our guardsmen as they come back to our community might be even longer lines for access to veterans' health care services than we've already known because of insufficient funding is unthinkable," Pomeroy said.

Disabled American Veterans and AMVETS have endorsed the bill, and other veterans' groups are considering it, Conrad said.

Jim Deremo, department service officer for the American Legion in Fargo, called the legislation a "great idea," but questioned where the money will come from.

Conrad, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, said he will propose a budget to cover the cost. He estimated the price of the pilot project in the tens of millions of dollars.

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Sen. Byron Dorgan also called for the Bush administration to cover veterans' health care, noting the nation proposes to spend more than $400 billion on defense next year.

President Bush's $2.4 trillion budget proposes $65.3 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2005. That includes a 1.8 percent increase in discretionary spending to $29.7 billion, which pays for veterans' medical care.

Conrad said veterans groups say they need $2.6 billion more for medical care than the $500 million increase proposed by Bush.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

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