GOP Infighting Blamed for VA Funding Woes
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When news broke first that the military healthcare system was failing wounded Iraq veteran, the Defense Department's top health official said the problem was not a lack of resources. But some veterans' leaders and members of Congress say the government has systematically under funded healthcare for the military and for veterans. They also say the White House and congressional leaders ignored their calls for adequate funding as war casualties escalated.
And as NPR's John Ydstie reports, Republican leaders even retaliated against members of their own party when they pushed too hard for more money for veterans' healthcare.
JOHN YDSTIE: For 24 years as a member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, Republican Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey fought hard for adequate healthcare for America's veterans. He was dogged, tireless and unapologetic.
Representative CHRIS SMITH (Republican, New Jersey): When it comes to medical care, you treat the veteran just like you would your spouse; just like I would my dear wife; just like we all would our children. You know, you say wait, that's not enough.
YDSTIE: But in 2004, as casualties from the Iraq war began to mount, Smith, by then the chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, argued a little too hard with the Republican House leadership. He told speaker Dennis Hastert and majority leader Tom DeLay that the money in the veterans' healthcare budget was about three-quarters of a billion dollars short of what was needed.
Rep. SMITH: And I refused to call it enough. It's what led to my ouster as chairman, because I refused to accept an inadequate number because that means veterans would go unattended to in our hospitals, and that's just totally unacceptable.
YDSTIE: So because you were pushing too hard for veterans' medical care, you lost your chairmanship?
Rep. SMITH: I lost my chairmanship and then Mr. DeLay invited me to his office and said we want you off the committee.
YDSTIE: Other Republicans allied with Smith also lost seats on the Veterans' Affairs Committee, and some lost appropriations for their home districts. Former speaker Hastert's office did not respond to a request for comment. Ironically, months later when dollars for VA healthcare came up short, just as Smith had predicted, the Republican leadership put together a supplemental appropriations bill.
Rep. SMITH: Almost to the dollar of what we said was going to be needed. And then there were excuses that we didn't anticipate the number of Iraqi war veterans coming back that would need care. Well, we had it in there. I mean, this wasn't rocket science.
YDSTIE: Smith says as far as he knows, the White House wasn't involved in moving him off the Veterans' Affairs Committee, and Sean Kevelighan, spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget, says the Bush administration's VA budget record speaks for itself.
Mr. SEAN KEVELIGHAN (Spokesman, White House Office of Management and Budget): Funding for Veterans' healthcare has actually increased 83 percent since the president took office, and that's roughly nine percent a year, which is a significant increase.
YDSTIE: But Rick Weidman, of the Vietnam Veterans of America, says that's just not enough, given swiftly-rising medical costs, the increasing healthcare needs of older veterans, and the tens of thousands of additional war wounded from Iraq.
Mr. RICK WEIDMAN (Vietnam Veterans of America): There are almost twice as many patients using the VA healthcare system today as there were when President Bush took office. So while there have been significant increases, it hasn't kept up with the growth in patients.
YDSTIE: And, says Weidman, that means the number of patients for each VA doctor and nurse is significantly higher than it was a decade ago. Weidman also argues that even though the budget for active duty military healthcare has almost doubled under President Bush to nearly $40 billion, that too has proved inadequate.
California Democrat Congressman Bob Filner agrees.
Representative BOB FILNER (Democrat, California): You just have enormous needs, and there was no preparation for the incredible injuries, both mental and physical, that would result in the Iraqi war.
YDSTIE: Filner, who is now the chairman of the Veteran Affairs Committee, also says the president's proposed $37 billion budget for the VA for 2008 is inadequate. It increases spending by about six percent over 2007, but then reduced spending in the next four years. Filner says he hopes to rectify that, first of all, by doubling the increase for 2008.
John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.