House Panel Approves Increase in Health Care Funds for VA Health System
The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development on Tuesday gave initial approval to a $128 billion domestic spending bill that would "shift billions of dollars from space, science and environmental programs to shore up funding for veterans' medical care, a major political issue this election year," the Wall Street Journal reports (Rogers, Wall Street Journal, 7/21). The bill would provide a total of $30.3 billion for the Veterans Health Administration for the upcoming fiscal year: $19.5 billion for medical services; $4.7 billion for medical administration; $3.7 billion for medical facilities; and $385 million for medical research (House Appropriations Committee release, 7/20). The bill would give the VA $1.94 billion more than it received in this fiscal year. To allow for expanded VA funding, the measure calls for reduced funding for almost all other programs included in the bill -- with the exception of housing -- by 2% to 4% below this fiscal year's levels, the Journal reports. Programs with reduced funding would include the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Rep. James Walsh (R-N.Y.), the bill's manager, said that the reductions are "brutally fair." According to the Journal, the bill "pitted two longtime Republican priorities -- science and veterans' care -- squarely against one another," but "with an aging veterans population and Americans again fighting overseas, the political imperative was clear." House Appropriations Committee Chair Bill Young (R-Fla.) said, "The budget crunch we all knew was coming has finally arrived" (Wall Street Journal, 7/21).
The Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee on Tuesday voted 10-5 to approve a bill (S 1153) that is designed to give Medicare-eligible veterans access to cheaper drugs purchased by the VA health system. The bill, sponsored by Committee Chair Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), would require Medicare-eligible veterans to annually select a physician from either the VA or Medicare and would allow them to purchase their drugs from either program, regardless of the physician selected, CongressDaily reports. Medications purchased through the VA are generally less expensive than elsewhere because the department is a high-volume buyer of prescription treatments, Specter said. In 2001, the average VA per-prescription cost was $22.87, while the average "cash cost" of a prescription was $40.22, according to the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. "Many retired steelworkers who are also veterans -- and who never needed VA because of company-paid benefits -- have lost their health insurance coverage and, with it, prescription drug benefits," Specter said, adding, "These people need a break. This bill could provide it." An amendment proposed by Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) to allow Medicare-eligible veterans to continue to access VA care even if they selected a Medicare-affiliated physician was rejected on a party-line vote (Rich, CongressDaily, 7/21).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.