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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, June 26, 2005

Veterans' healthcare short by $1 billion

By Dennis Camire
Advertiser Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Veterans advocates have called on Congress to make up a $1 billion shortfall in paying for veterans' healthcare this year.

The Veterans Affairs Department acknowledged Thursday that it needs at least $1 billion more than it originally requested for healthcare. The agency has used $600 million in its construction account and $300 million in a fund expected to be carried over into next year to pay for this year's healthcare.

Sen. Daniel K. Akaka of Hawai'i, top Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, called the situation "very alarming."

"The VA has already been forced to tap into emergency funds for next year as well as vital construction funds," he said. "Now that we have confirmation that there truly is a problem, we can get to work on it together."

William A. Boettcher, national commander for the veterans group AMVETS, said advocates have contended for years that VA was underfunded. "I don't want to say, 'I told you so,' but we feel vindicated in a way," he said.

Richard F. Weidman, director of government relations for Vietnam Veterans of America, said veterans groups had predicted the VA shortfall this year.

"Nobody who could do something about it wanted to listen to us," he said. "We believe we need the $1 billion to get through this year. In addition, we believe we need at least $2.5 billion more on top of that for next year."

John Furgess, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the funding shortfall in healthcare should never have happened, because the VFW and others had warned both the Bush administration and Congress that the budget was short.

"Now we have the VA admitting that they can't properly perform their mission without robbing one account to pay another," he said. "Now it will take an emergency (action) to correct the mistake this year and possibly next."

Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson said in a statement that veterans' healthcare needs were a priority. "

Working with our partners in Congress, I'm confident that the VA's budget will continue to provide world-class healthcare to the nation's veterans," Nicholson said.

Akaka and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., offered a proposal in April to increase VA funding this year by almost $2 billion. At the time, VA officials denied that any extra funds were necessary.

Murray again introduced a bill Thursday to provide the additional $2 billion. She said her primary concern is whether the agency would have the resources to meet healthcare needs of returning troops.

Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig, chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, stopped short of supporting Murray's call for emergency funds, saying he wants to hear first from Nicholson.

GNS correspondent Ellyn Ferguson contributed to this report.