Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Think Progress : : On Day of Iraq Speech, House Conservatives Gouge Vets

And a happy Fourth of July to you guys, too!

On the same day President Bush will use the soldiers at Fort Bragg as a backdrop for his address on Iraq, conservatives in the House have voted to underfund veterans’ health care by at least $1 billion.


Blogger Management said...

On Day of Iraq Speech, House Conservatives Gouge Vets

This just in from the Hill. On the same day President Bush will use the soldiers at Fort Bragg as a backdrop for his address on Iraq, conservatives in the House have voted to underfund veterans’ health care by at least $1 billion.

The backstory: Last week, the Washington Post revealed that the budget for veterans’ health care was suffering a billion dollar shortfall this year, a fact unearthed “only during lengthy questioning” of a Veterans Affairs undersecretary.

The Bush administration had claimed on multiple occassions that the current budget was enough to provide full care. Back in February, Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson testified that he was “satisfied that we can get the job done with this budget.” Later, when Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) tried to add funds into the VA budget, Nicholson wrote her a letter assuring that the VA did not “need emergency supplemental funds in FY2005 to continue to provide timely, quality service that is always our goal.”

Yet today, even after the administration’s misleading claims had been exposed, and despite brand new data showing that demand for veterans health programs had grown twice as fast as the VA predicted earlier this year, House conservatives still voted to block any additional funding for veterans’ care.

Moments ago, Rep. Chet Edwards (D-TX), the ranking minority member on the House Subcommittee on Military Quality of Life and Veterans Affairs, proposed making up the shortfall for vets’ care in a foreign aid bill that is still being considered. According to the AP, conservatives shot down the measure on a 217-189 vote.

1:36 AM  
Blogger Management said...

Funds for Health Care of Veterans $1 Billion Short
2005 Deficit Angers Senate Republicans, Advocacy Groups

By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 24, 2005; A29

The Bush administration, already accused by veterans groups of seeking inadequate funds for health care next year, acknowledged yesterday that it is short $1 billion for covering current needs at the Department of Veterans Affairs this year.

The disclosure of the shortfall angered Senate Republicans who have been voting down Democratic proposals to boost VA programs at significant political cost. Their votes have brought the wrath of the American Legion, the Paralyzed Veterans of America and other organizations down on the GOP.

"I was on the phone this morning with Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson, letting him know that I am not pleased that this has happened," said Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. "I am certain that he is going to take serious steps to ensure that this type of episode is not repeated."

The $1 billion shortfall emerged during an administration midyear budget review and was acknowledged only during lengthy questioning of Jonathan B. Perlin, VA undersecretary for health, by House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) at a hearing yesterday.

"We weren't on the mark from the actuarial model," Perlin testified. He said that the department has already had to use more than $300 million from a fund that had been expected to be carried over to the fiscal 2006 budget, and that as much as $600 million for planned capital spending will have to be shifted to pay for health care.

At a noon news conference yesterday, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee covering veterans affairs and the lead sponsor of Senate Democratic efforts to add $1.9 billion to the VA budget, accused the Bush administration of unwillingness "to make the sacrifices necessary to fulfill the promises we have made to our veterans."

In a rare display of bipartisanship on the polarized issue of veterans spending, Craig appeared with Murray at the news conference and said he agreed with many of her comments.

Murray cited an April 5 letter written by Nicholson to the Senate in a bid to defeat her amendment: "I can assure you that VA does not need emergency supplemental funds in FY2005 to continue to provide timely, quality service that is always our goal," he had said.

Murray aides said they obtained a draft copy of the midyear review in early April, suggesting that the department knew of the budget problems at the time Nicholson wrote the letter.

VA spokesman Terry Jemison refused to release a copy of the document, saying, "We don't provide information about pre-decisional budget passback and midyear reviews."

Nicholson issued a statement yesterday: "The health care needs of America's veterans are among VA's highest priorities. Working with our partners in Congress, I'm confident that VA's budget will continue to provide world-class health care to the nation's veterans."

Craig and other Senate and House Republicans declined to say how much the fiscal 2006 budget would be raised above the level proposed by the administration. They said any attempt to supplement the current fiscal 2005 appropriation will have to await more detailed information on the shortfall this year. Craig said he plans to hold a hearing next week on VA funding needs.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on military construction and veterans affairs, said she had just been informed of the $1 billion fiscal 2005 shortfall.

"We can never fall short on our promises to those who have sacrificed so much," Hutchison said.

The House has already approved a $68.1 billion Department of Veterans Affairs appropriation for fiscal 2006 that has been sharply criticized by the American Legion, the Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Disabled American Veterans.

Richard Fuller, legislative director of the Paralyzed Veterans, said the money problems this year and next were obvious to anyone visiting VA clinics and hospitals.

"You could see it happening, clinics shutting down, appointments delayed," Fuller said.

Joseph A. Violante, legislative director of the Disabled American Veterans, said Perlin's testimony yesterday confirms the veterans' assessment that the administration is "shortchanging veterans."

The Bush administration and House Republicans have been the main focus of anger among veterans organizations.

Their "policies are inconsistent with a nation at war," said Steve Robertson, legislative director of the American Legion. They violate the basic military value of "an army of one, teamwork, taking care of each other," he said.

The administration and Congress, Robertson said, are promoting policies that "subdivide veterans into little groups, the ones that 'deserve' and the ones who 'don't deserve.' "

Veterans groups are particularly angry with Buyer, who was specially chosen by the House leadership to chair the House Veterans Affairs Committee to keep spending down. Buyer was selected to replace Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), who had alienated House leaders by pushing for high levels of spending on veterans programs.

Buyer recently sparked new controversy in an interview published by the American Legion Magazine in which he said the department should concentrate on serving a "core constituency," and he disputed assertions that "all veterans are veterans and all veterans should be treated the same."

The Indiana Republican has defended the House's fiscal 2006 spending levels for veterans, contending that VA health care would actually grow by $1.6 billion under the House legislation.

American Legion National Commander Thomas P. Cadmus countered that nearly $1 billion of the $1.6 billion increase would be achieved by cutting other medical accounts: $533 million from the medical administration account, $417 million from medical facilities and $9 million from medical and prosthetics research.

Yesterday, Buyer called on the Senate to "drill down" into VA money problems to determine the legitimate needs for fiscal years 2005 and 2006.

In addition to their unhappiness with spending levels, veterans groups are bitter over the changes initiated by the Republican leadership in the jurisdiction of appropriations subcommittees. VA funding was shifted from the subcommittee that includes housing and NASA programs to the subcommittee on military quality of life and Veterans Affairs and related agencies, which forces the Veterans Affairs Department to compete for limited funds with such programs as Defense Department health care, military cemeteries and military construction.

"The American Legion is not about to write Congress and say 'take away from DOD heath care' [in order to boost VA funding]. That's completely unacceptable," Robertson said.

The veterans lobby has already beaten back two controversial Bush administration proposals: a $250 enrollment fee for veterans joining the health care system and an increase in the prescription co-payment, from $7 to $15.

Leaders of the American Legion, the Paralyzed Veterans and the Disabled American Veterans all noted a striking partisan division in Congress on veterans issues, with Democrats giving them much more support than Republicans.

Traditionally, Violante said, "Republicans have been supportive of defense," but he said Bush administration policies and votes in the House and Senate suggest that the GOP does not view the care of veterans as "a continuing cost of war."

In the 2004 election, exit polls showed that voters who had served in the military were decisively more Republican than those who had not. President Bush carried the one out of five voters who had served by 16 percentage points, 57 to 41, while Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) barely won those who had not served, 50 to 49.

The Bush administration's priorities are "a little bit different now and veterans aren't a priority," Violante said. He described this as "terrible -- I think it's unconscionable."

1:36 AM  
Blogger Management said...

Senate GOP plans spending boost for vets

Associated Press

WASHINGTON - With an unexpected number of wounded troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, Senate Republicans hurried Tuesday to cover what could be a politically damaging $1 billion miscalculation in money needed for veterans health care.

They prepared to add roughly $1.5 billion to veterans programs as Democrats, who had tried to add billions to the veterans budget this spring, chided the White House and Republican leaders.

"This is not news to this side of the aisle," said Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla. "We've known all along the funding was woefully inadequate."

The Senate Republicans' swift decision cuts off Democratic attempts to boost veterans spending with their own $1.4 billion amendment to a pending spending bill.

The Veterans Affairs Department told lawmakers last week that it needs an extra $1 billion for health care this year. Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson said the agency can rearrange its spending accounts to cover the shortfall and rejected the need for an emergency cash infusion.

House Republicans stood by Nicholson, who urged lawmakers at House and Senate hearings not to view the funding shortfall as a crisis. With a 217-189 vote along party lines, the House rejected an effort by Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, to immediately provide another $1 billion for veterans.

"We've got plenty of time," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif.

Senate Republicans, nevertheless, pushed ahead to provide emergency assistance so the VA wouldn't need to draw on other accounts to pay health care costs.

"We have a difference of opinion," said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.

It was not clear how the money would fit under an overall spending cap that Congress and President Bush have imposed on themselves for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.

The $1.5 billion in emergency funding this year would fill the current needs and let the agency carry any unused money into next year, Craig said.

Nicholson said the VA plans 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.

Citing the federal government's long budgeting process, officials have said their estimates were based on information from 2002, before the United States went to war in Iraq.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., demanded to know exactly which projects would be delayed or terminated. "I apologize for being rather angry, but I am rather angry," she said.

The department faces an additional $1.5 billion shortfall 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 $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 on veterans.

Lawmakers questioned why the VA had waited so long to tell lawmakers about its budget problems.

"So their original budget estimates were created before the Iraq war," said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif. "Shouldn't someone have modified the budget request sooner to account for our soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention rising health costs?"

"It borders on stupidity if we are on the same team," Lewis said.

Nicholson said the department had been "very forthcoming with information" as the health care demands increased this spring and its budget tightened, but he also acknowledged he could have done more to keep lawmakers in the loop.

"I should have come up here. I should have picked up the phone and called the chairman and the ranking member," he said. "I've learned that."

1:37 AM  

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