Senate Subcommittee Approves $2 Billion for VA Health Programs
The Senate Military Construction-VA Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday approved nearly $2 billion in emergency spending for veterans' health care programs for fiscal year 2006, CQ Today reports (Stark, CQ Today, 7/19). President Bush on Thursday asked Congress for $1.98 billion to address the Department of Veterans Affairs budget deficit. 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 (California Healthline, 7/15).
The subcommittee's FY 2006 appropriations bill totals $83 billion, with about $70.7 billion allotted to VA and $12.1 billion to military construction. About $44.4 billion of the total would be discretionary spending (CQ HealthBeat, 7/19). 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 pending Senate bill 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, 7/15).
The Senate bill would provide $2.3 billion for VA medical services above what is included in the House version. The $34.1 billion in discretionary funding included in the Senate measure would be $3.4 billion, or 10.9%, above the FY 2005 budget, and $2.6 billion, or 8.3%, above levels recommended by the House. The Senate measure proposes new or increased fees for some veterans sought by Bush in his FY 2006 budget request and included in the House version, according to subcommittee Chair Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) (CQ Today, 7/19).
The Hill on Tuesday examined the role of lawmakers' in the VA's nearly $1.3 billion FY 2005 budget shortfall. According to The Hill, legislators have "fingered [VA] as a scapegoat for using outdated estimates" that caused the deficit, but legislators "are at least partially to blame for the embarrassing snafu." The Hill notes that Congress "passed up" several opportunities in 2004 to allocate funds to veteran's health care programs, including one request by former House Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Chris Smith (R-N.J.) to include the "exact amount of the shortfall" in the 2005 budget.
However, Nicholson has maintained that the need for additional funding was unanticipated, and The Hill reports that "lawmakers readily embraced his point of view." Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Larry Craig (R-Idaho) said, "Whether it was a Democratic president or whether it was a Republican president, the fact is, they almost always underfunded veterans." He added, "It was the Congress in a bipartisan vote that funded [veterans] accurately and adequately." The Hill notes that "few veterans' lobbyists and advocates were mollified by congressional shock at the shortfall, and some were openly skeptical of Nicholson's leadership."
Joe Violante, legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, said, lawmakers "don't want to put enough money into VA to ensure that veterans can get timely, quality care" (Schor, The Hill, 7/19).