Funds for Health Care of Veterans $1 Billion Short

Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), head of the Veterans Affairs Committee, says at a briefing:
Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), head of the Veterans Affairs Committee, says at a briefing: "I was on the phone . . . with Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson, letting him know that I am not pleased" about a $1 billion shortfall in VA funds for health care. To his left are Democratic Sens. John D. Rockefeller IV, Patty Murray and Ken Salazar. (By Yuri Gripas -- Associated Press)
By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 24, 2005

The Bush administration, already accused by veterans groups of seeking inadequate funds for health care next year, acknowledged yesterday that it is short $1 billion for covering current needs at the Department of Veterans Affairs this year.

The disclosure of the shortfall angered Senate Republicans who have been voting down Democratic proposals to boost VA programs at significant political cost. Their votes have brought the wrath of the American Legion, the Paralyzed Veterans of America and other organizations down on the GOP.

"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," said Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. "I am certain that he is going to take serious steps to ensure that this type of episode is not repeated."

The $1 billion shortfall emerged during an administration midyear budget review and was acknowledged only during lengthy questioning of Jonathan B. Perlin, VA undersecretary for health, by House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) at a hearing yesterday.

"We weren't on the mark from the actuarial model," Perlin testified. He said that the department has already had to use more than $300 million from a fund that had been expected to be carried over to the fiscal 2006 budget, and that as much as $600 million for planned capital spending will have to be shifted to pay for health care.

At a noon news conference yesterday, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee covering veterans affairs and the lead sponsor of Senate Democratic efforts to add $1.9 billion to the VA budget, accused the Bush administration of unwillingness "to make the sacrifices necessary to fulfill the promises we have made to our veterans."

In a rare display of bipartisanship on the polarized issue of veterans spending, Craig appeared with Murray at the news conference and said he agreed with many of her comments.

Murray cited an April 5 letter written by Nicholson to the Senate in a bid to defeat her amendment: "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," he had said.

Murray aides said they obtained a draft copy of the midyear review in early April, suggesting that the department knew of the budget problems at the time Nicholson wrote the letter.

VA spokesman Terry Jemison refused to release a copy of the document, saying, "We don't provide information about pre-decisional budget passback and midyear reviews."

Nicholson issued a statement yesterday: "The health care needs of America's veterans are among VA's highest priorities. 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."

Craig and other Senate and House Republicans declined to say how much the fiscal 2006 budget would be raised above the level proposed by the administration. They said any attempt to supplement the current fiscal 2005 appropriation will have to await more detailed information on the shortfall this year. Craig said he plans to hold a hearing next week on VA funding needs.

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