A Supreme Court ruling that the government may continue viewing alcoholism as willful misconduct instead of a disease is a "decision without any heart" but one that will not affect the help alcoholics can get, a spokesman for the American Medical Association said Thursday.
By a 4-3 vote, the court held Wednesday that the Veterans Administration acted properly in refusing to extend educational benefits to two veterans who applied more than 10 years after their service.The two men said in their suit they had failed to apply earlier for the benefits because they were disabled by their alcoholism.
"We think the decision is wrong. We think it's a decision without any heart and a decision which really doesn't treat the medical evidence in a very sophisticated way," said Kirk Johnson, AMA general counsel, in an interview on "CBS This Morning."
Johnson said the decision would apply only to the VA, which he said has an archaic benefit rule. He said society recognizes that alcoholism is a disease and is "far ahead of the VA or the Supreme Court."
The justices did not attempt to decide whether alcoholism is a disease, noting that the medical community remains sharply divided on that issue.
But the court said the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 does not force the VA to treat alcoholism as a disease. The VA said the men were suffering from "primary alcoholism" which is a result of "willful misconduct."
Thomas K. Turnage, director of the VA, said the ruling supports a system of regulations in place for more than 20 years and will not affect the way veterans suffering from alcoholism are treated in VA hospitals and clinics.
"It's really not going to affect (treatment of alcoholism) at all," Turnage said in a telephone interview. "We have a very comprehensive program as it deals with alcoholism in our 172 hospitals and 232 out patient clinics . . . We have a very compassionate, understanding and concerned alcoholic program for veterans who have this malady."
The ruling confirms a VA rule that veterans suffering from primary alcoholism will not be given special consideration for benefits because of their addiction, said Turnage. Veterans suffering from secondary alcoholism will continue to receive such consideration.
Turnage said the difference is that secondary alcoholism results from an underlying condition, such as psychological problems, and primary alcoholism has no such underlying cause.
Experts in the insurance industry said medical insurance payments for alcohol rehabilitation will not be affected by the ruling.