Pete Rose smashed his 3,000th hit. The head-pounding Saturday Night Fever soundtrack dominated the charts. Back-to-back films that would sweep the Academy Awards, The Deer Hunter and Coming Home, explored soldiers' tormented return from an unpopular war. And gasoline cost 67 cents a gallon.
If you're a disabled or low-income veteran, you don't need a time machine to relive those days. The government has preserved a bit of 1978 at the travel reimbursement office of any Veterans Administration Medical Center. The travel benefit for veterans in need has been frozen at 11 cents a mile for 29 years. The reimbursement rate for federal workers on government travel, following the IRS deductible cost rate that many private businesses use, is updated regularly to reflect gasoline prices, and stands at a record 48.5 cents a mile. But for vets who are poor or seeking medical care for service-related disabilities, things haven't changed since the Bee Gees sang "Stayin' Alive."
A bid to give vets a little help on skyrocketing fuel costs is caught up in the federal budget wrangling between Congress and the White House. It's a (relatively) tiny $125 million portion of the $43.2 billion VA budget proposal. President Bush supports giving the VA a 15 percent funding increase, the largest in its history. But Congressional leaders have folded the well-loved VA measure into a bigger package, the Labor and Health and Human Services budget, which the president views as too rich and has threatened to veto. It's unclear whether the Democrats have enough votes to follow through on this dare for the president to veto vets funding. It is far more likely that weeks of standoff will ensue, and injured vets will continue to have to swallow gas prices that are 60 percent higher than when the Iraq war began.
The hardship of high fuel prices on Iraq veterans who have to travel far for medical care was captured movingly by Anne Hull and Dana Priest of The Washington Post in a story on a West Virginia couple who had to drive 80 miles, and burn $25 of gas, sometimes weekly, for care at the nearest VA facility. The nostalgic 11-cents-a-mile rate, along with a $6 deductible ($3 coming and $3 going), meant the couple was reimbursed $8.52, or about one-third of their gasoline expense. It's worse in some states, like Maine, which has only one VA hospital and where some vets have to drive four hours for medical care.
But the Congressional Budget Office estimates that eliminating the deductible and bringing the vets' reimbursement up to 48.5 cents a mile would increase spending nearly sixfold to $1.7 billion between 2008 and 2012, a figure that assumes that claims will increase as more vets seek help. But it's unlikely Congress will fork over that much for fuel.
The idea of a compromise that would raise the vets' benefit to 28.5 cents per mile came out of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, chaired by Daniel Akaka of Hawaii. The mileage provision penned by Jon Tester of Montana would keep the deductible (although freeze it from further increases) and bring the vet mileage reimbursement on par with what federal workers get when they choose to drive their own car for travel instead of a government vehicle. On Capitol Hill, they look at it as a fair deal, since funds are limited and there are no other federal healthcare programs that include travel reimbursement.
"When Congress looks at these things they look at what the bottom line is going to be," says Joe Violante, national legislative director at Disabled American Veterans. His group also has numerous other priorities in improving healthcare for vets—it's often hard just to get an appointment at the VA hospital, let alone to afford the travel. But Violante says travel costs remain a significant issue. "When you take a veteran who may not be making a large income, and they live far away, when gas prices are over $3, it has a big impact as to whether or not that individual seeks help. VA was never designed to be in every community, so a lot of veterans, especially out in rural areas, have to travel a lot—sometimes 100, sometimes 300 miles."
Vets groups often argue that the gaps in veteran health benefits are a hidden—and unpaid—continuing cost of the war. But the 11-cents-per-mile reimbursement rate is a twofer in the government's denial of reality department. It's just one more place where we're hiding the true cost of the nation's energy mess.