Sunday, July 17, 2005

GOP scrambles to fill veterans' shortfall


GOP scrambles to fill veterans' shortfall

WASHINGTON (AP) — Fellow Republicans warned House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay more than a year ago that the government would come up short — by at least $750 million — for veterans' health care. The leaders' response: Fire the messengers.

Now that the Bush administration has acknowledged a shortfall of at least $1.2 billion, embarrassed Republicans are scrambling to fill the gap. Meanwhile, Democrats portray the problem as another example of the GOP and the White House taking a shortsighted approach to the cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and criticize their commitment to the troops.

New Jersey Rep. Chris Smith, as chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, had told the House GOP leadership that the Veterans Affairs Department needed at least $2.5 billion more in its budget. The Senate passed a bill with that increase; the House's bill was $750 million short.

Smith and 30 other Republicans wrote to their leaders in March 2004 to make the point that lawmakers who were not the usual outspoken advocates for veterans were troubled by the move. Failure to come up with the additional $2.5 billion, they contended, could mean higher co-payments and "rationing of health care services, leading to long waiting times or other equally unacceptable reductions in services to veterans."

Still, the House ignored them.

Smith was rebuked by several Republicans for sounding the spending alarm, and House leaders yanked his chairmanship in January. Rep. Rob Simmons, R-Conn., lost his chairmanship of the VA health subcommittee, and Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., is no longer on the committee. They too had signed the letters to Hastert, R-Ill., and DeLay, R-Texas.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Smith refused to blame House leaders or discuss his firing.

"I'm not doing any of this 'I told you so' nonsense," he said. "Now that we're here, let's just get it right."

Ben Porritt, a spokesman for DeLay, said that a year ago "we didn't see any indication that there was going to be a shortfall." He said House leaders will "make sure that every veteran will receive the coverage they need."

Hastert's office did not respond to a request for comment.

The White House first told Congress that it could handle this year's shortage by shifting money from other programs. A chagrined Jim Nicholson, the VA secretary and former national Republican chairman, then acknowledged last month that his department still was $975 million short.

The House voted almost immediately to give it to him.

Last week, the Bush administration raised to $1.2 billion the amount it says is needed. Two days later, however, White House Budget Director Joshua Bolten told the House Budget Committee that the VA for the past three years has gotten more money than it needs for medical care.

About $250 million of the shortfall can be attributed to soldiers who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, the VA said. The agency had predicted 23,000 of those war veterans would need its services. The department now puts the number at 103,000.

"We know VA provides good care, so veterans increasingly are coming," Simmons said. "So, we cannot afford to be optimistic about low numbers. They just haven't worked out that way."

Some lawmakers say the shortfall is a product of the administration's scrimping on veterans' care to reduce the size of federal deficits.

"Most everybody is thoughtful of veterans, but it seems when comes it comes time to roll up your sleeves and look at the correct amount of money, it seems, sometimes, people don't want to roll up their sleeves and face it," said Rep. Walter Jones Jr., R-N.C.

The VA has come up short before.

In 2003, the agency wrote in the Federal Register that it had $21.6 billion for medical benefits but needed $23.5 billion, a $1.9 billion shortfall.

That preceded a decision by the department to stop enrolling veterans whose injuries or illnesses were not service-related and veterans who were not considered indigent.

About a month before the House Republicans warned Hastert and DeLay, then-Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi disclosed in a hearing that the White House's Office of Management and Budget had cut his budget request by $1.2 billion. It was a rare criticism from within the administration.

The White House's disdain for presidentially appointed officials who publicly waver from the administration's position was well-known. In 2002, the administration fired Mike Parker, the civilian head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, after he complained to the Senate Budget Committee about the water projects Bush wanted to cut.

Principi survived his moment of candor, but he stepped down after Bush was re-elected. He now heads the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. He did not respond to requests for an interview on the VA medical care issue.

Bush repeatedly has proposed — and Congress has rejected just as often — making better-heeled veterans pay a $250 enrollment fee and increasing their $7 prescription drug co-payments.

Bush's budgets assumed the enrollments fees and higher medicine co-payments would save $232 million in 2005 and $440 million in 2006 even though it was clear Congress was not going to approve them. Congress also rejected the administration's plan to cut the VA's nursing home beds by 5,000 in 2005.

Nonetheless, the department put some of the blame for this year's shortfall in budgeting for only 8,500 beds rather than the 13,000 mandated by Congress. VA officials were unable to explain why fewer beds were budgeted.

Additionally, the administration assumes in the VA's budget that the agency will come up with $340 million in savings this year and $590 million in 2006 from what it describes as "management efficiencies." Those efficiencies have never been fully described to members of Congress.

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