Sunday, July 31, 2005

US Senate approves veterans funds, sends to Bush


US Senate approves veterans funds, sends to Bush

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Friday approved $1.5 billion in additional spending for veterans' health care programs strained by seriously wounded soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan combat.

By a vote of 99-1, the Senate approved the emergency funds that were passed by the House of Representatives on Thursday. The legislation, attached to an unrelated spending bill for environmental programs, now goes to the White House for President Bush's signature.

The measure will give the Department of Veterans Affairs "full flexibility to fill the coffers that they have been borrowing from," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican.

This fall, Congress is expected to debate a second round of additional veterans health-care spending that is expected to total $1.5 billion to $2 billion for the fiscal year starting on Oct. 1.

"With all of our new veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan every day, this problem is only going to get more severe," cautioned Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington State Democrat who fought for the additional money over the objections of Republicans earlier this year.

Last month, the Veterans Administration acknowledged a funding shortfall, after months of insisting it had adequate resources for hospitals and clinics.

Besides larger-than-anticipated numbers of injured veterans from the Iraq war, the VA said its resources were strained by aging veterans of wars in Vietnam, Korea and World War II.

During debate on the bill, Murray warned the Bush administration that it should use the added funding to end a hiring freeze at veterans' health facilities, which has contributed to long waits for nonemergency care, and to expand outpatient services.

The emergency funds, Murray said, "cannot be used for budget shell games to make the VA look solvent."

In its budget plan submitted in February to Congress, the Bush administration called for new fees on veterans as one way to cover some rising costs.

Murray said that when adjusted for inflation, the Veterans Administration is spending 25 percent less for patients than it did in 2000.

Lawmakers attached the veterans money to an unrelated spending bill because it was headed for quick approval and they wanted the funds put into the pipeline before a month-long congressional recess.