The Bush Administration’s Failed Leadership Leaves VA With Severe Shortfall

Democratic Policy Committee

The Bush Administration’s Failed Leadership Leaves VA With Severe Shortfall RELEASED   June 23, 2005   PRESS CONTACTS
Barry Piatt (202/224-2551)
Senator Dorgan

The Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) announces a severe budget shortfall. Today, the VA informed members of Congress that its mid-year budget review revealed a $1 billion shortfall in meeting critical health care needs during the current fiscal year. As a result, VA officials say that they are forced to take $600 million away from funds to improve VA hospitals and other infrastructure and to borrow $400 million from funds already committed to provide health care during the next fiscal year. The end result is that the quality of veterans’ health care will suffer and essential services and programs are now at risk.

When President Bush issued his Fiscal Year 2005 budget request, veterans’ leaders called it “deplorable” and “inexcusable.” (Veterans of Foreign Wars, 2/2/04) Earlier this year, Senators Murray and Akaka revealed that regional VA health care networks were experiencing a shortfall of over $800 million. Today’s revelation by the VA validates these claims and demonstrates the inadequacy of President Bush’s Fiscal Year 2005 budget.

The Bush Administration knew of this shortfall and apparently misled Congress about VA funding needs. During consideration of H.R. 1268, the Fiscal Year 2005 Emergency Supplemental Appropriations bill, Senator Murray offered an amendment to add $1.9 billion in veterans’ health care funding. Republican Senators sought guidance from the Bush Administration on this proposal, and the Administration responded by stating that there was no emergency in the VA. In fact, VA Secretary Jim Nicholson wrote to Senator Hutchison, Chairperson of the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee, saying, “I can assure you that VA does not need emergency supplemental funds in FY 2005 to continue to provide the timely, quality service that is always our goal. We will, as always, continue to monitor workload and resources to be sure we have a sustainable balance. But certainly for the remainder of this year, I do not foresee any challenges that are not solvable within our own management decision capability.” (4/5/05) Given that the mid-year budget review was already underway on April 5, Secretary Nicholson may have misrepresented the VA’s knowledge of its budget needs and made assurances that he could not support with facts.

During the debate on the supplemental appropriations bill, the Bush Administration seemingly made other inaccurate statements to Republican Senators as well. For example, Senator Craig, the Chairman of Veterans Affairs Committee, said “according to VA, they have seen approximately 48,000 OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom] and OEF [Operation Enduring Freedom] veterans since the war began.” Senator Craig used this statistic to make the case that Senator Murray’s amendment would provide “$41,000 per patient, an extraordinary amount by any measure.”

In fact, over 360,000 veterans have already returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, and over 86,000 have sought health care from the VA, twice the number cited by Senator Craig (House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing, 5/19/05). There are an additional 740,000 military personnel who have also served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this next generation of veterans will also be eligible for VA health care, putting further strains upon the system.

Today’s revelation marks the third time during President Bush’s tenure that a VA funding shortfall has been exposed. Each year, the VA budget process has followed the same pattern: President Bush has put forth a budget request that falls billions of dollars short of veterans’ health care needs, veterans’ advocates and Democrats have fought for significant increases in funding, and the Republican-controlled Congress has passed a VA budget that is only marginally better than the President’s request. This pattern has left the VA with persistent budget shortfalls.

The budget shortfalls have been so persistent that, including today’s revelation, VA officials have now been forced to publicly admit shortfalls on three separate occasions in the past four years.

  • In Fiscal Year 2002, Congress had to pass $417 million in supplemental funding because the VA announced that it was running a deficit of over $400 million. Even with the VA’s announcement, President Bush refused to spend $275 million of this funding, leaving the VA with insufficient funding and waiting lists for health care lasting several months.
  • As Congress began consideration of the Fiscal Year 2005 budget, the President’s request was so inadequate that even VA Secretary Anthony Principi testified to Congress that the President’s request fell $1.2 billion below the amount he had requested for the VA.

Today’s request is simply more evidence of the fact that the President has failed to level with America’s veterans about his Administration’s lack of commitment to their care.

Democrats call for immediate action to support our veterans. As a result of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, now is probably the most critical time for the VA in the last two decades. Demand is skyrocketing: 360,000 veterans have already returned from these operations, and over 740,000 more are on their way. When the VA assembled its Fiscal Year 2005 budget request in 2003, it projected patient growth of 2.3 percent; instead, patient growth has been 5.2 percent. Democrats believe the federal government has a solemn commitment to provide the health care, treatment, and support that American veterans have earned with their service and sacrifice. Therefore, Senate Democrats call upon the President to provide a straightforward and honest assessment of the funding the VA needs to meet its commitments so that members of both parties in Congress can work together to provide these critical resources.

Democratic Policy Committee
Byron L. Dorgan, Chairman
419 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510

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