House Seeks to Close Gap in Spending on Veterans

Lawmakers in the House have agreed to add $1 billion in emergeny funds aimed at health care for veterans. It's in response to a VA funding gap that was disclosed last week. Differences must now be worked out between the House and Senate versions.

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The House of Representatives has voted to add $1 billion in emergency funds for health care for veterans, including ones coming back from Iraq. That vote came one day after the Senate added $1.5 billion for health care and other veterans programs. Officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs say they were surprised to discover they were short the money. NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO reporting:

Angry Republicans and Democrats want to know how the VA could have been so far off when it estimated how much money it needed. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson has spent much of this week testifying. Yesterday, before the House Veterans Affairs Committee, he told lawmakers the VA simply hadn't expected so many veterans to ask for help, including those coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Secretary JIM NICHOLSON (Veterans Affairs): The increase in this year that we're in is over 126 percent from what was forecasted, and its--about 40 percent of those are returnees from the combat theater.

SHAPIRO: In the last year, Nicholson said the VA had seen about 80,000 more veterans from Iraq than expected.

Sec. NICHOLSON: I think it's because of the quality of the care that veterans are getting in those facilities, and that word is continuing to go out there.

SHAPIRO: That explanation didn't go over with some members of Congress, like California Democrat Bob Filner.

Representative BOB FILNER (Democrat, California): I have never seen someone as laid-back with a $3 billion problem, with our veterans not getting appointments, as you are today. Again, I think you should resign. What do you think?

SHAPIRO: The VA first admitted to the budget shortfall last week. Groups that represent veterans weren't buying Nicholson's excuse that the VA was caught off guard by how many veterans would ask for care. Dave Gorman is the executive director of Disabled American Veterans.

Mr. DAVE GORMAN (Disabled American Veterans): I think that the VA knew that they were not able to take care of the number of patients who need it and requested care, and they could not take care of those patients in a timely manner.

SHAPIRO: There had already been other indications that the VA was seeing unexpected numbers of veterans from Iraq. In March, a VA epidemiologist published a paper in The New England Journal of Medicine. That showed a big spike in the number of returning troops who asked for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychiatric injuries. And more troops in Iraq are surviving serious injuries that, in other wars, would have been fatal. That's thanks to better body armor and better battlefield medicine. Gorman says soldiers from Iraq will keep pressure on Congress, at least for now.

Mr. GORMAN: I think that as long as we're a nation at war, then the new generation of wounded and disabled veteran is going to keep the need for VA health care more in the public eye than it has been. The veteran coming back from the battlefield today absent a limb is going to have to rely on the VA for the next six or seven decades of their lives to provide the kind of medical care services that they require.

SHAPIRO: The number of veterans overall is dropping. That's because about 1,000 World War II veterans die every day. There are far fewer Vietnam veterans, but they are now reaching ages when more health-care problems pop up. And Congress has told the VA to serve more people. Now anyone who returns from a combat zone gets two years of free medical care. Congress has not been so generous when it comes to providing funds for such expansion. Dave Gorman of Disabled American Veterans.

Mr. GORMAN: The VA has been chronically underfunded for at least the last 12 to 15 years. The fact of the matter is, VA and veterans have not ever been a priority in any administration of recent date, and that's shameful.

SHAPIRO: And like all health-care providers, the VA is facing the biggest pressure of all: The cost of medical care keeps going up. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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