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Court overturns ruling on vets' free lifetime health care

From Terry Frieden
CNN


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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A federal appeals court Tuesday ruled that the U.S. government does not owe free lifetime medical care to World War II and Korean War veterans who agreed to serve 20 years in exchange, despite promises made to them when they were in the armed forces.

The ruling represents a victory for the federal government, which had argued the veterans were not entitled to the benefits. The ruling will potentially save the government billions of dollars in health care costs.

The 9-4 ruling by the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C., overturns a ruling by a three-judge appeals panel in February, 2001, which ruled that the veterans were entitled to the lifetime health care based on the military's promises.

In the opinion issued Tuesday the Court said that action taken this year allows for free care in the future, but that the government is not obligated to pick up the medical expenses incurred from 1995 to 2001.

"Because [the law] at most authorizes space available treatment and not free health insurance for life, we hold that the Air Force Secretary lacked the authority in the 1950s when plaintiffs joined to promise free and full medical care," the Court majority said.

The majority of judges, however, clearly seemed sympathetic to the veterans against whom they ruled.

"We ... can do no more than hope Congress will make good on the promises recruiters made in good faith to plaintiffs and others of the World War II and Korean War era from 1941 to 1956 when Congress enacted its first health care insurance act for military members, excluding older retirees," the court majority said.

In an emotional dissent four judges sided with the veterans.

"If Congress can appropriate billions for this aspect of national defense and not know how it is accounted for, then God save the Republic. Of course Congress knew; of course the service secretaries authorized promises in return for service; of course these military officers served until retirement in reliance, and of course there is a moral obligation to these men," read the dissent.



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