VETERANS HEALTH: Gore Announces Additional $1B Boost
The White House announced its plan to "seek an additional $1 billion for veterans' health programs in fiscal 2000" yesterday, meeting a mix of praise and condemnation from veterans' groups, the Washington Times reports. While President Clinton proposed $18 billion in VA medical care for FY 2000, some veterans advocates are pressing for $21 billion. Vice President Al Gore, who announced the increase during a Tennessee campaign stop, said, "This is an important step in ensuring the health of the people to whom we owe the health of our democracy, and I look forward to working with Congress to make sure it passes without delay." Butch Miller, national commander of the American Legion, said he was "encouraged that the White House has recognized the warning signs of diminishing health care for veterans if the VA budget is not funded adequately to meet its operational needs. ... But now I would hope that Congress adds the additional $900 million necessary to sustain the current level of health care services." Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN) noted that 20 of the 22 VA health care operations would operate in the red under Clinton's funding proposal. Rep. Bob Strump (R-AZ) decried Gore's "political opportunism," noting, "To anyone paying attention, the strategy is obvious. Scare the daylights out of veterans and intimidate VA officials. Then have this phony revelation about more veterans' spending, hoping a grateful veterans community will want to kiss the same hand that's been slapping them around all year" (Cain, 7/27). Sid Shown, Tennessee State Commander for the Military Order of the Purple Heart, said, "It's a sucker's ploy. He's proposing even less than Congress is talking about." According to Gore, $800 million of the funding will be allocated to hire additional medical staff and improve care quality, including reducing wait times, while $100 million is slated to upgrade facilities and the remaining $100 million "will go to support home- and community-based, long-term care services for veterans." Gore noted that the funding request does not violate the Balanced Budget Act and would not require extensive cuts in other programs. Congress, meanwhile, has recommended increasing Clinton's funding proposal by $1.7 billion (Snyder/de la Cruz, Nashville Tennessean, 7/27).
Congress is maneuvering around Balanced Budget Act restrictions to appease requests for funding while continuing its push for a tax cut, the Washington Post reports. Yesterday, the House approved a $3 billion boost to veterans health care by labeling it "emergency funding" -- a move that frees Congress from having to adhere to federal program spending limits. Analysts note that Congress' plans for an $800 billion tax cut rely on Congress staying within budget limits approved during the 1997 effort to balance the budget. "Emergency spending" plans total $35 billion this year (Pianin/Eilperin, 7/27).
A Houston Chronicle editorial blasts Congress' effort to shift additional funding to veterans' health, noting, "the number of VA hospital system patients has dropped from 49,000 a day in 1989 to 21,000 a day in 1998." The editorial also notes that the General Accounting Office released a report "to the effect that the VA is wasting 25% of its health care dollars in operating and maintaining facilities that include empty buildings and millions of square feet of vacant space." The editorial reports that the "current 25 million population of living veterans is projected to decline to 16 million in 20 years," concluding: "as popular as the cause of veterans is to members of Congress, any sizable increase in the VA's budget must fit into the constraints agreed to in the 1997 balanced budget deal" (7/23).