Bush Requests Almost $2B for VA Health Care Programs for Fiscal Year 2006
President Bush on Thursday asked Congress for $1.98 billion for Department of Veterans Affairs health care programs for fiscal year 2006 to address an expected budget deficit, CongressDaily reports (Cohn, CongressDaily, 7/15). In a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Bush wrote, "My administration is committed to ensuring that our nation's veterans continue to receive timely and high-quality health care," adding, "I am requesting these resources to cover the expected increased costs in FY 2006 that VA will experience in its medical care budget" (Dinan, Washington Times, 7/14).
VA Secretary James Nicholson and other department officials in June testified before Congress that the budget deficit for health care programs could reach at least $1 billion in FY 2005 and at least $2.6 billion in FY 2006. The House in June voted 419-0 to pass a fiscal year 2005 supplemental appropriations bill (HR 3130) that would provide VA health care programs with $975 million -- the amount first requested by the Bush administration for FY 2005. The Senate in June voted 96-0 to add $1.5 billion in emergency funds for VA health care programs to the FY 2006 Interior Department appropriations bill (HR 2361).
On Wednesday, the administration asked Congress for $300 million -- in addition to the $975 million previously requested -- for VA health care programs for fiscal year 2005 (California Healthline, 7/13). Congress might provide more than $3 billion for VA health care programs in response to the administration requests (Allen/Norton, CQ Today, 7/14).
Lawmakers promised to address the Bush administration requests for additional funds for VA health care programs. Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chair Larry Craig (R-Idaho) said that Congress likely would include the additional funds requested for FY 2005 in the FY 2006 Interior Department appropriations bill and the funds requested for FY 2006 in the FY 2006 VA appropriations bill (AP/Los Angeles Times, 7/15).
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) -- chair of the Senate Appropriations Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee, which will mark up the 2006 VA appropriations bill next week -- said that she hopes to "push the conference on Interior to be finished by Wednesday of next week" and send the bill to Bush for approval, which would allow the allocation of additional funds for FY 2005. She added, "I think Democrats will be amenable" to the move, although they have not formally agreed (CongressDaily, 7/14).
"We're prepared to put our money were our mouth is," Senate Appropriations Chair Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) said (CQ Today, 7/14).
White House Office of Management and Budget Director Joshua Bolten testified to the House Budget Committee on Thursday that part of the problem is that Congress and the administration had overspent on VA health care programs from 2002 to 2004. "The appropriations have exceeded the VA medical care needs in the preceding three years by over half a billion dollars in each of the preceding three years," Bolten testified, according to Democratic committee members, who criticized the comments.
Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) said of the comments, "Anyone willing to visit our VA hospitals would know that there are hiring freezes, delays in veterans getting doctor's appointments and postponement of important medical equipment purchases because VA health care funding has not kept up with veterans' needs" (Washington Times, 7/14).
Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.), a member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said, "Our service members, veterans and military families do not deserve to be treated this way. The administration has shortchanged the VA by over $3 billion, and they are just now getting around to acknowledging this gross failure" (CQ Today, 7/14).