Senate Votes 96-0 to Boost Veterans’ Health Aid

New York Times

Senate Votes to Boost Veterans’ Health AidBy THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, Filed at 6:26 p.m. ET, June 29, 2005

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate voted Wednesday spend an extra $1.5 billion on veterans’ health care this year as the Bush administration agreed to ask Congress for more money to cover a politically embarrassing shortfall.

The 96-0 vote was a response to the Veterans Affairs Department’s announcement last week that its health care costs had risen faster than expected, forcing the agency to shift money among accounts to cover the shortage.

Just Tuesday, the department had insisted it could deal with the shortage without asking for more dollars.

The administration’s request also came after demands from Democrats that majority Republicans take care of veterans who are returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

”This is just the latest example of how poorly the administration planned for and prepared this nation for what would be required in Iraq and the war on terror,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

The administration’s request to lawmakers could come Thursday. Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson was to appear on Capitol Hill to give Congress a more precise accounting of health care needs.

The Senate, unwilling to await that request, added its $1.5 billion proposal to a spending bill for the budget year that begins Oct. 1.

”It was a frustration to me and an embarrassment,” said the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.

House Republicans said they would wait for more details from the administration.

The chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., said lawmakers could move ahead on a spending bill this week. It was unclear how the GOP would fit the money into its already established budget, but Republicans said they would find a way.

”Congress needs to provide the additional resources now. We’re at war,” said Rep. Jim Walsh, R-N.Y.

Democrats pushed repeatedly this spring to add billions to the veterans’ health care programs, urging Republicans to heed signals that money was running short.

”I looked at the numbers, and it was very clear to me that the VA had not calculated correctly for returning veterans,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. ”We’re finally here to say I told you so.”

Republicans batted down the Democrats’ initiatives with assurances from the VA that it did not need more this year. Then the VA told lawmakers last week that veterans were requiring more health care than expected this year, creating a $1 billion hole in the health budget.

”We were in error. Sen. Murray was right,” said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa. ”I am not happy that we were put in a position to vote against an amendment that we now find out was needed, but we got bad information.”

This year’s shortfall stems mostly from an unexpected increase in health care demands from veterans of all ages, from all combat eras. The budget, first prepared before the U.S. invaded Iraq, also failed to account for an increasing number of veterans returning from the fight against terrorism.

Nicholson also informed Congress that the VA needs an additional $1.5 billion to fill expected health care needs next year.

That includes $375 million to refill a budget cushion that the department expected to deplete this year; $700 million for the department’s increased workload; and $446 million to offset an error in estimating long-term care costs.

Congress has added roughly $1 billion to the administration’s budget request for veterans next year after lawmakers rejected Bush’s call for large co-payments for all veterans and new health care fees for some of them.

Reid said the miscalculations went beyond bureaucratic mismanagement. ”The administration initially chose a path of denial that ultimately bordered on outright deceit,” he said.

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