House Moves to Improve Health Care for Vets

Veterans health care programs would get $975 million in additional funding for the next three months to partially plug a shortfall as rising numbers of injured U.S. soldiers return from Iraq.

Rushing to approve the added funding before recessing for the July Fourth holiday, the House on Thursday voted 419-0 in favor of the measure.

On Wednesday the Senate approved $1.5 billion in additional money for veterans health care. Both chambers were reacting to a Veterans Administration admission that the money was urgently needed despite recent statements that there was adequate funding.

The VA’s reversal was an embarrassment for the Bush administration and congressional Republicans, who had repeatedly defeated earlier moves by Democrats to pump more money into the veterans health care system.

“You have let the veterans and their families down,” Rep. Brian Baird, a Washington Democrat, told House Republicans. “You folks are AWOL.”

Rep. James Walsh, a New York Republican who chairs a House panel on veterans spending, said the House was simply following a regular cycle by waiting until now to pass added funding. He accused Democrats of “a lot of bellyaching.”

Testifying to Congress this week, VA Secretary James Nicholson said health care costs were rising at a much faster rate than anticipated, in part because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but more so due to older veterans from past wars needing costly care.

The VA and a House panel have estimated that veterans’ health care programs could be up to $2.5 billion short of funds for this year and the next fiscal year.

Before sending a bill to President Bush, the House and Senate will have to work out their differences over funding levels.