Senate Approves Spending Bill With $2B for VA Health Care Programs
The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday voted 28-0 to approve an $83 billion fiscal year 2006 appropriations bill (HR 2528) for the Department of Veterans Affairs and military construction programs that would provide the Bush administration with the $2 billion requested to address a budget deficit for VA health care programs, CQ Today reports (Starks, CQ Today, 7/21). President Bush last week asked Congress for $1.98 billion to address the budget deficit for VA health care programs.
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 passed 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. A bill under consideration in the Senate would add $1.5 billion in emergency funds for VA health care programs to the FY 2006 Interior Department appropriations bill (HR 2361) (California Healthline, 7/20).
The bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee includes $70.7 billion for VA and $12.1 billion for military construction, with $46.4 billion in discretionary funds, which includes $2 billion for the budget deficit in department health care programs. Under language in the committee report, VA would have to conduct quarterly reviews of expenditures as part of an "attempt to avoid the kind of budget shortfalls revealed this summer," CQ Today reports. The bill received bipartisan support, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said that the legislation would address the "mammoth and troubled budget" of VA (CQ Today, 7/21).
In related news, the Senate on Thursday approved by voice vote an amendment to a $441.6 billion FY 2006 Department of Defense authorization bill that would extend military health benefits for National Guard members and reservists, "setting the stage for a major debate with House members" when the legislation moves to conference committee, CongressDaily reports. The amendment, sponsored by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), would allow National Guard members and reservists who are not on active duty, as well as their families, to enroll in Tricare for a fee.
The House version of the bill does not include the amendment. House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee Chair John McHugh (R-N.Y.) said that, although he has "no philosophical objection" to the amendment, he has concerns about the cost, which could reach $4.6 billion through FY 2010. Graham said, "There is all kinds of waste in the Pentagon that would more than pay for this" (CongressDaily, 7/22).