Veterans Programs to Get More Money for Health Care

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Veterans Affairs Department will ask for an emergency infusion of cash to meet its health care expenses this year after pressure built in Congress to fill a $1 billion funding shortfall, a senator and other officials said Wednesday.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said the VA and White House agreed to seek emergency money after Senate Republicans moved quickly to add $1.5 billion to this year’s veterans budget.

Administration and congressional officials said House leaders agreed with the decision. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because an official announcement had not yet been made.

The Department of Veterans Affairs told lawmakers last week that it now predicts veterans’ health care will cost $1 billion more than had been expected this year. Senate Republicans, acting swiftly to minimize potential political damage, prepared to provide that money and more in a bill for debate and passage on Wednesday.

“I’m frankly frustrated to be put into this situation … but this Congress will not fail our nation’s veterans,” said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.

The maneuver cut off Democrats preparing to pounce on the shortfall with their own spending amendment, demanding a $1.4 billion injection into veterans programs.

“I warned my colleagues that what was an emergency would become a crisis if we didn’t work together to address the problem,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “That emergency has indeed become a crisis.”

Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson told lawmakers Tuesday that he didn’t need more money right away. The department can juggle its internal accounts to meet health care needs without cutting the quality of veterans services, he said.

Lawmakers, however, worried that veterans services would suffer if the VA robbed its other accounts to pay for urgent health care expenses.

Democrats called the shortfall a symptom of President Bush’s mismanagement of the war in Iraq, as the president appealed for the nation’s patience for “difficult and dangerous” work ahead in Iraq.

“It’s distressing because our veterans deserve better than an administration focused on cutting corners and hiding costs while engaged in a war abroad,” said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif.

Nicholson said Tuesday the VA intended to cover its $1 billion in unexpected health care costs this year by drawing on a $400 million budgetary cushion and $600 million for building maintenance and operations.

About one-quarter of this year’s shortfall can be traced to an unexpectedly large number of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, but overall enrollment by veterans of all combat eras has exceeded the department’s estimates.

The department said it used figures from 2002, before the United States went to war in Iraq, to project is 2005 budget needs, citing the federal government’s long budgeting process.

Nicholson told lawmakers the VA also needs $1.5 billion to fill expected health care needs next year.

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

Congress has already added roughly $1 billion to next year’s budget for veterans, acknowledging that lawmakers won’t accept new health care fees and co-payments that the administration wanted to impose

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