Are we caring for our vets? With your help, the Union-Bulletin aims to find out

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Recent stories in the Union-Bulletin and newspapers across the country have chronicled the ``unexpected'' financial shortfall in the Department of Veterans Affairs' health-care programs.

The revelation of a $2.5 billion hole for 2005 and 2006 had politicians on both sides of the aisle hopping mad.

How embarassing is it to have this kind of story break right before members of Congress head home for Fourth of July celebrations? VA Secretary Jim Nicholson said most of the shortfall could be traced to unexpected health-care demands from veterans of all combat eras and an underestimation of the number of wounded troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

While it may be impossible to predict to the dollar how much the VA will need for health care, it stretches credulity to say this is unexpected.

How can you not expect aging veterans to require more health care? How can you not expect the number of wounded to do anything but increase at an unhealthy pace?If these scenarios so easily stump those in charge of watching out for veterans' welfare, we have to ask: Are we _ locally and as a nation _ providing the quality and accessibility of medical services our veterans deserve?We don't have an answer to that question _ yet. But with the help of local veterans and VA employees, the Union-Bulletin hopes to get answers to that and other questions.

We believe veterans and the public have a right _ and a need _ to have as much information on this subject as possible.

As we pondered the situation, we found we had lots of questions. Among other things, we want to find out:4What were veterans promised in regard to health care?4What kind of waiting list do veterans face and how does that compare to public hospitals and clinics?4How easy or difficult is it for veterans to access health-care services?4How do the medical results at VA facilities compare with other hospitals and clinics treating patients with similar health problems?4How does the VA system stack up to the fiscal norms of other well run hospitals?4Do VA facilities have up-to-date medical equipment?4Has the VA health-care budget kept pace with the number of veterans and the rate of inflation in health-care costs?4In 10 years, as older veterans die and more veterans are wounded in action, will there be a net increase or net decrease in health-care demands?4If you could design the perfect health-care system for veterans, what would it look like and what would it cost?Until some of these questions are answered, it is impossible to know if the VA is grossly underfunded or wastefully overspending. Or to conclude whether we as a country are meeting or exceeding or falling way short of our responsibility to care for our veterans.

For us to be able to bring these answers to our readers, we need guidance from veterans and health-care providers. We need to know your concerns and your experiences.

To help launch this process, we are setting up a series of community meetings. On July 19, we are inviting World War II and Korean veterans to meet with us at 5 p.m. at the Union-Bulletin. On July 26 at 5 p.m., we would like to meet with veterans from the 1960s through the current conflict.

On Aug. 2 at 5 p.m., we asking VA employees and health-care providers to meet with us. Anyone interested in this topic is welcome to attend any of the meetings or to contact me by phone or e-mail.

Armed with these local concerns and questions, we will go in search of answers. What we find will be reported in a continuing series of stories until there is a clearer picture on the current health-care situation for veterans and a projection on what the future holds.

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