VA Confirms 103,000 Iraq and Afghan Veterans Seek Healthcare: Senate Plans $1.5 Billion Spending Boost for Veterans
By DAVID ESPO
The Associated Press
Tuesday, June 28, 2005; 3:26 PM
WASHINGTON — Struggling to prevent political damage, Senate Republicans intend to raise spending on veterans programs by $1.5 billion to make up for a shortage caused partly by the return of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, officials said Tuesday.
“I’m glad they have seen the light,” said Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada. He said majority Republicans had refused to provide the money when members of his party called for it earlier in the year.
Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, who chairs the Veterans Committee, said a vote was likely Tuesday or Wednesday.
The decision to approve the funds came in response to last week’s disclosure that the Department of Veterans Affairs needs $1 billion more for veterans health care this year.
Republicans swiftly retreated on the issue in the Senate, but not in the House.
There, the GOP defeated a Democratic effort to provide an extra $1 billion for veterans health care. The 217-189 vote was along party lines.
“Veterans need to know that no veteran will be without his health care in 2005, nor will they be without their health care in 2006,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. “There are solutions to this problem, and those solutions are being addressed.”
Democrats said that wasn’t good enough.
Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, accused the GOP of hiding behind procedural excuses _ that the House was debating legislation unrelated to veterans. Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said that either Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson misled Congress with his earlier statements or he himself had been kept in the dark by other administration officials.
Reid poked at the Republicans as Democratic officials circulated printed material accusing the GOP of having “ignored early warnings on funding for veterans.”
Specifically, it cited an attempt by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to add $1.98 billion for veterans health care to a spending bill for the current year and an attempt to raise spending by $2.8 billion for next year. Republicans defeated the first proposal on a vote of 54-46, the second on a vote of 53-47.
VA officials testified last week that the shortage in funds resulted from poor budget forecasting as well as additional costs to provide services to veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
VA officials have said the agency could juggle its budget to meet the health care needs by taking $600 million from funds earmarked for maintenance and another $400 million in money built in as a cushion.
It was not clear how the additional funds would fit under an overall spending cap that Congress and President Bush have imposed on themselves for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.
Presumably, lawmakers could cut funds from another program to stay under the limit, or they could finesse the issue by declaring an emergency and spend the money without having it count as part of the total.
Senate Republicans made their decision as Nicholson told lawmakers in the House and Senate that demand for veterans health programs rose by 5.2 percent this year, more than the 2.3 percent increase that had been forecast.
About one-quarter of this year’s $1 billion shortfall results from the services needed by veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, adding that the estimate of roughly 23,000 returning veterans proved far below the actual total of 103,000.
Nicholson said the agency now estimates its earlier forecast for the next fiscal year will leave it about $1.5 billion short.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., told Nicholson the delayed notice about budget shortfalls “borders on stupidity.”
Across the Capitol, Senate Democrats took turns criticizing the agency and the administration.
Murray said the disclosures were “another indication this administration has not taken veterans needs seriously.”
She added, “Any plan to get us through this year based on borrowing funds from future years is fundamentally flawed.”