Senators Criticize Funds for Health Services for Veterans Included in Budget Proposal Released by President Bush
Republican and Democratic senators on Tuesday said that President Bush's fiscal year 2006 budget proposal would not provide enough funding to maintain current levels of health services for veterans, and the problem would be exacerbated by soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, the New York Times reports (Pear, New York Times, 2/16).
The budget proposal would require about two million higher-income veterans without service-related medical conditions to pay a $250 annual fee, as well as an $8 increase in copayments for prescription drugs. Under the proposal, total funds for the Department of Veterans Affairs would increase by 1% to $68.2 billion. The budget proposal would eliminate federal funds for a program that provides long-term care for veterans and reduce by $351 million funds for VA nursing home care, which could lead to the elimination of about 5,000 nursing home beds administered by the department (California Healthline, 2/9).
New VA Secretary Jim Nicholson said the department will focus on providing care to "those who are disabled because of their military service, those who are down on their luck, those who are poor and those who have chronic illnesses or special conditions like spinal cord injury." He added, "We have to make tough decisions. We have to set priorities."
Dennis Cullinan, legislative director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said, "These cuts, at a time when demand for VA long-term care services is on the rise with a rapidly aging veteran population, are unconscionable and reprehensible."
Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs ranking minority member, also criticized the administration's proposal to save $606 million by restricting nursing home eligibility. He said that the proposed increase in veterans' cost sharing would make it "prohibitively expensive" for some veterans to receive care and would lead to 192,000 veterans dropping out of the health system (New York Times, 2/16).
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said that Nicholson has "a moral burden" to fight Bush's proposed cuts, adding that the proposed cost sharing "won't reach halfway to first base" (CQ HealthBeat, 2/15).
According to Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), chair of the Senate veterans' affairs committee, the federal government would have to spend more than $30.7 billion to maintain current levels of veterans health services in 2006. Although Congress in its last session rejected changes to veterans' cost sharing, Craig said he would consider Bush's proposals "afresh." He added that he senses "unanimous concern on the part of this committee that the budget has some inadequacies" (New York Times, 2/16).
Craig said he expects VA to use its authority to collect $211 million from insurers and related copayments for nonservice-related health services; $200 million in savings from changes to the system's prescription drug formulary; and another $200 million from restricted spending on medical products and reducing medical staff by 3,700 positions (CQ HealthBeat, 2/15).
House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chair Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) "is open to the concept of the president's proposals as they bring balance, fairness and equity into the system," according to his spokesperson Laura Zuckerman (AP/Indianapolis Star, 2/16).
In related news, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) on Tuesday said that he would attempt to attach to Bush's $82 billion supplemental appropriations bill an $8 billion amendment that in part would extend health coverage to members of the National Guard, USA Today reports.
The proposal would allow all National Guard members to receive health coverage regardless of whether they are mobilized. In addition, the proposal would expand coverage for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder to all veterans who need it, rather than only to those just returning from combat (Squitieri, USA Today, 2/16).