June 29, 2005

Congress plans emergency funds for vets health care

Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As U.S. war injuries in Iraq andAfghanistan mounted, Congress on Tuesday hurriedly craftedlegislation to provide around $1.5 billion in "emergency" fundsfor veterans' health care programs stretched thin by combat andaging veterans of past wars.

Approval of the funds was expected on Wednesday in theSenate and probably in early July in the House ofRepresentatives.

The effort came after the Bush administration acknowledgedthat it had significantly underestimated veterans health carefunds needed for the fiscal year beginning on Oct. 1.

"The bottom line is there is a surge in demand in VAservices across the board," Veterans Affairs Secretary JamesNicholson told a House panel.

The House Appropriations Committee estimated the overallbudget shortfall at $2.6 billion, with about $1.1 billion ofthat already being addressed in a spending bill for theDepartment of Veterans Affairs.

A Bush administration official, who asked not to beidentified, estimated the overall budget shortfall at around$2.1 billion.

Democrats have sought additional money for veterans healthcare programs for several months and Senate Democratic leaderHarry Reid chided Republicans for repelling such moves.

As recently as April, Nicholson told the Senate thatveterans health care programs had adequate funding, but he tolda House Appropriations subcommittee the Veterans Administrationhad assumed it would have to take care of 23,553 patients whoare veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan based on2002 estimates, before the Iraq war started.

That number has now been revised to 103,000, more than fourtimes higher, he said.

Some of those veterans are seeking routine health services."Others require more intensive care for both the physical andpsychological consequences of combat," Nicholson said.

The updated figures underscored how the costs of the Iraqwar, approaching $300 billion, were rippling through otherparts of a federal budget already under tight spending limits.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewiscomplained that the Veterans Administration was silent as hispanel wrote a fiscal 2006 veterans spending bill. The measure,he said, could have responded to the funding shortage.

"It borders on stupidity," said Lewis, a CaliforniaRepublican. "I think someone was hoping they could hide theball for a while."

Veterans Affairs officials tried to minimize the impact ofIraq war casualties on funding, saying veterans from earlierwars were putting more pressure on the budget.

A $1 billion health-care funding shortage is being takencare of this year, Nicholson said, by tapping a reserve fundand deferring some maintenance and equipment acquisition costs,moves criticized by Democrats.

While Nicholson said veterans' health care was not beingcompromised by the budget problem, some Democrats wereskeptical. Veterans groups have complained that funding is notkeeping pace with rising medical costs and some veteransexperience long waits for care.