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Senators see red over VA red ink

Citing an unanticipated number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans trying to access government health services, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said Thursday it needs another $1 billion this year.

Northwest senators reacted swiftly and angrily to news of the shortfall, which was revealed this week in a midyear budget review.

Calling the VA’s announcement “outrageous,” U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the Bush administration should have seen this coming months ago. She cited repeated assurances from VA officials that the department had more than enough money to make it through the fiscal year.

“It’s either incompetence or they were directly lying to us,” said Murray, who introduced legislation on Thursday to provide additional funding for veterans in an emergency supplemental appropriations bill.

Murray sits on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, which is chaired by U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, who said Thursday the panel will convene next week to address VA budget concerns.

“I was on the phone this morning with Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson, letting him know that I am not pleased that this has happened,” Craig said. “I am going to take serious steps to ensure that this type of episode is not repeated.”

Murray said the VA’s budget miscalculation highlights problems with an underfunded VA health care system in which veterans face delays in getting needed treatment and have to wait up to three years for surgery.

“When adjusted for inflation, the VA is spending 25 percent less per patient than it did in fiscal year 2000,” she said.

The legislation she introduced Thursday is identical to an amendment she offered last April to the $82 billion emergency appropriation for the U.S. military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and homeland security. That amendment would have provided an additional $2 billion for veterans’ health care. The measure was defeated along party lines after vehement objections by the Bush administration.

At the time, Nicholson wrote Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, “I can assure you that VA does not need emergency supplemental funds in FY2005 to continue to provide timely, quality service that is always our goal.”

Instead of passing Murray’s amendment, the Senate approved a Craig amendment seeking an additional $410 million over the administration’s request for veterans’ medical care.

“When I made the argument for the additional funding,” Craig said Thursday, “I was assured by the department that the $410 million in additional money was sufficient to meet the needs of veterans. To find out soon afterward that I was supplied with inaccurate or dated information is extremely frustrating.”

He said he would demand to hear from the VA how this happened and would work “to ensure that this situation does not happen again.”

Asked to respond to the senators’ statements on Thursday, the VA would provide only a two-sentence statement from Nicholson.

“The health care needs of America’s veterans are among VA’s highest priorities,” Nicholson said. “Working with our partners in Congress, I’m confident that VA’s budget will continue to provide world-class health care to the nation’s veterans.”

Department spokesman Phil Budahn said the VA would have no further comment on the budget shortfall.

VA officials told the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Thursday that the department had forecast 2.5 percent growth in demand for health care this year. In fact, demand will increase 5 percent.

Craig noted that the VA’s announcement Thursday came “just in the nick of time.” The House has already passed its appropriation for fiscal 2006, but the Senate still has time to address shortfalls.

Citing “senior VA finance officials,” Craig said that the department is now meeting veterans’ health care needs by using about $600 million originally budgeted for capital projects and $400 million budgeted for carry-over into the next budget year.

“The capital construction money is for contracts already signed,” Murray said. “You cannot unsign contracts that are already out there.”

As for “surplus funds,” she said, the administration acknowledges that there are none.

The Bush administration’s 2006 budget request of $70.8 billion for veterans’ benefits and services was based on management savings as well as fee increases for veterans with non-service-related disabilities.

On Thursday, Murray said she has heard the VA shortfall this year may actually be as high as $1.5 billion and urged the administration to submit a supplemental request to adequately fund veterans’ health care.

As of February, VA hospitals and clinics had seen more than 85,000 veterans, or about a quarter of those discharged so far after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, John Brown, director of the VA’s Seamless Transition Office, told Congress in May.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, more than a million service men and women have served in military operations overseas, according to media reports. If a quarter of them seek government medical care upon discharge, VA hospitals can expect 250,000 more patients in the near future.

“With new veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan every day, this problem only promises to get worse,” Murray said. She cited the example of the VA’s American Lake facility near Tacoma, where only veterans who are at least 50 percent “service connected disabled” can get an appointment.

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