Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Senate approves emergency vets health care funds


Senate approves emergency vets health care funds

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Wednesday approved $1.5 billion in emergency funds for veterans health care to pay for the rising cost of Iraq war injuries and illnesses of aging veterans from past wars.

The money, approved by a 96-0 vote, was attached to an unrelated spending bill for domestic environmental programs.

Republicans, who shot down Democrats' attempts to add money for veterans health care earlier this year, embraced the measure after Veterans Affairs Secretary James Nicholson on Tuesday acknowledged a severe shortage of funds.

His congressional testimony contrasted with statements he made in April that veterans' health programs were adequately funded.

The House of Representatives is expected to pass similar legislation this summer.

"I just find it appalling that the VA, the VA secretary and those who are required to giving us honest numbers failed to look up past their own desks" and seek adequate funding, said Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat.

Earlier this year, Murray and Sen. Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, tried repeatedly to win additional money for VA health care programs, saying the inadequate budgeting was widely known among veterans' organizations and others.

Estimates from the Bush administration and congressional committees this week put the overall veterans health care funding shortage in the range of $2.1 billion to $2.6 billion for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

In his testimony on Tuesday, Nicholson told a House Appropriations panel that his agency had used 2002 projections to estimate the number of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that would need health care. That figure was 23,553 patients. Nicholson said the number had been revised to 103,000.

Overall health care costs, Nicholson said, were rising this year at a pace of 5.2 percent over last year, far beyond the 2.3 percent annual growth rate originally projected.

Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican who has a party leadership position, said Republicans voted against more funding earlier this year because of assurances by the VA that it had enough money. "We were in error. Sen. Murray was right," Santorum said.

He said he was "dismayed at what is apparently bad management, bad forecasting at the Department of Veterans Affairs."

Nicholson testified that he had kept Congress informed of the changing budget picture, although he acknowledged he could have been more forceful.

During much of Wednesday's debate, senators attempted to put a bipartisan face on this latest attempt to fund veterans health care, but tempers flared as the day wore on.

After Santorum accused Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada of launching a "partisan attack" against Nicholson's qualifications, an angry Reid shot back.

Referring to Santorum, Reid said, "Three times he opposed funding for veterans -- votes in committee and here and on the Senate floor." Reid added, "Now with an election cycle upon us, he supports, under pressure, voting for veterans. Talk about crass politics."

Santorum is thought to face a tough re-election bid next year.