Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison is scrambling to cover a hole in the Veterans' Affairs budget.
The Veterans Affairs Department will ask for an emergency infusion of cash to meet its health care expenses this year after pressure built in Congress to fill a $1 billion funding shortfall, a senator and other officials said Wednesday.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said the VA and White House agreed to seek emergency money after Senate Republicans moved quickly to add $1.5 billion to this year's veterans budget.
The maneuver cut off Democrats preparing to pounce on the shortfall with their own spending amendment, demanding a $1.4 billion injection into veterans programs.
"I warned my colleagues that what was an emergency would become a crisis if we didn't work together to address the problem," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. "That emergency has indeed become a crisis."
Democrats called the shortfall a symptom of President Bush's mismanagement of the war in Iraq, as the president appealed for the nation's patience for "difficult and dangerous" work ahead in Iraq.
"It's distressing because our veterans deserve better than an administration focused on cutting corners and hiding costs while engaged in a war abroad," said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif.
About one-quarter of this year's shortfall can be traced to an unexpectedly large number of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, but overall enrollment by veterans of all combat eras has exceeded the department's estimates.
The department said it used figures from 2002, before the United States went to war in Iraq, to project is 2005 budget needs, citing the federal government's long budgeting process.
[VA Secretary] Nicholson told lawmakers the VA also needs $1.5 billion to fill expected health care needs next year.
That includes $375 million to refill the cushion that would be depleted this year; $700 million for the department's increased workload; and a $446 million error in estimating long-term care costs.
VA Secretary Nicholson and Sen. Hutchison will be visiting Waco to see its VA hostpital, which is currently threatened by closure due to budget issues.
Waco VA Hospital advocates say the tour could be key to winning Nicholson's support for the 73-year-old complex which has previously been marked for closure. Many say former VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi's visit almost 18 months ago played a role in Principi's decision to order additional review rather than closing or downsizing the hospital and hope the same will hold true for Nicholson's tour.
"When Secretary Principi visited the VA at the request of Senator Hutchison and myself, it made a significant difference in his thinking," said U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, who will join Hutchison in hosting Nicholson's visit. "You have to see the Waco VA facilities and meet the employees to fully understand what a world-class facility we have."
The VA and private contractors are considering downsizing several expensive hospitals including the Waco site and expanding others in growing veterans populations as part of a nationwide effort to improve veterans health care services.
Hutchison and Nicholson will arrive in Texas for a naming ceremony at a VA clinic in Lufkin for former congressman Charles Wilson, then fly to Waco for an afternoon stop, agency spokesman Ozzie Garza said.
The visit comes during a tough period for veterans healthcare, as Nicholson recently announced the agency is facing a $1 billion shortfall in the current fiscal year and could need an additional $1.6 billion in 2006.
Edwards, the Waco congressman, is concerned the shortfall could lead the agency to advocate downsizing the Waco hospital to save money.
"It would be the wrong reason, but if the VA is too underfunded, it would provide a rationale for shutting down or dramatically cutting back the Waco VA Hospital," Edwards said.
US Senate Candidate Barbara Ann Radnofsky called on Kay Bailey Hutchison to do her homework. The Houston, Texas mediator and lawyer challenging Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) for her Senate seat, analyzed Sen. Hutchison's June 23 claims concerning funding shortfalls for veterans, "after learning that the VA is approximately $1 billion short in 2006."
"We've researched the issue on what the American Legion and others were explaining in terms of an even larger shortfall earlier this Spring", said Radnofsky, 48, who is a practicing mediator and lawyer in Houston, Texas. "I call on Sen. Hutchison to explain why she ignored vital information explaining the crisis much earlier. Texans deserve a senator who will do her homework."
"Sen. Hutchison is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs. In a floor speech on April 12, 2005 opposing Sen. Murray's Amendment for Emergency Supplemental Appropriations this year, she confessed to relying on the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (Congr Record S3457, 3465 et seq), while major organizations had already uncovered the truth in terms of needs." Radnofsky continued, "Had the issue of funding for veterans been presented to me as a sitting Senator, I would have vigorously done my homework. We expect our Senator to be an independent voice for Texans, not a rubber stamp for the administration."
"The National Commander of the American Legion (which does not take sides in political races, nor endorse candidates, but rather is a voice for veterans and drafted the original GI Bill), Thomas Cadmus, issued a detailed statement on March 18, 2005 from his office in DC as follows: 'The Senate's budget resolution also ignored my funding recommendations for FY 2006. Every major veterans' service organization that deals with the VA health care system every day recommended more than $2 billion in additional funding than offered by either chamber - without any budgetary gimmicks. Those young men and women at Walter Reed and Bethesda that I have visited did not shirk their duties and responsibilities, nor did the veterans of our earlier wars.' "