Thursday, February 14, 2008

333,000 US Casualties: Are They Covered?

333,000 US Casualties: Are They Covered?

By Maya Schenwar

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As Iraq and Afghanistan war casualties soar to unprecedented levels, Bush's 2009 Veterans Affairs' budget comes up short.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will treat about 333,000 sick and injured veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in 2009, according to VA statistics released last week. That number is a 14 percent increase over this year's casualty total. Yet, despite the Bush administration's promises to prioritize the VA even as other domestic departments' funds are cut, its annual budget request for next year places more financial burdens than ever on many returning soldiers.

At first glance, Bush's 2009 budget may seem like a boon to veterans: It would increase the VA budget by $3.4 billion.

"The President's ongoing commitment to those who have faithfully served this country in uniform is clearly demonstrated through this budget request for VA," said VA Secretary James B. Peake at a budget hearing last Thursday. "Resources requested for discretionary programs in 2009 are more than double the funding level in effect when the president took office seven years ago."

However, veterans' advocates argue the budget's growth has not kept pace with the skyrocketing size of the veteran community - or the increasing cost of servicing them.

"Bush only provides the news on the increased budget without providing full facts on the increased demands and costs," said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense.

Although the "discretionary spending" Peake mentions has indeed doubled since Bush entered office, the VA budget as a whole has only increased by about a third - roughly in proportion to the growth of the veteran population, according to VA statistics.

Peake's comparison of today's VA budget to that of seven years ago also sidesteps the reality of changing market values. Congressman Bob Filner, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs' Committee, says that regardless of the administration's sweeping claims, the 2009 VA budget is not much improvement over last year's. According to Filner, the budget's much-touted 5.5 percent increase for veteran health care "barely covers the cost of medical inflation."

"The service and sacrifice of our veterans is real, and the budget for the VA must provide realistic funding levels to meet these needs," Filner said in a statement upon the budget's release. "I am concerned that this budget proposal contains only modest increases for veterans' health care while paying for this slight increase with cuts in other veterans' programs below the historic levels this Congress provided for in this fiscal year."

For example, the new budget would require veterans to pay more out-of-pocket expenses, such as pharmacy co-pays and annual enrollment fees. Also, under Bush's plan, the VA's medical research budget would drop below 2007 levels, with the expectation the department would outsource its research needs.

"The VA reduces its research budget [in 2009] and sets sights on coordinating with other agency research activities, agencies such as the Institute of Medicine," said Rick Jones, legislative director of the National Association for Uniformed Services. "With so much unknown on traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, it seems ill-advised to depend on outside-agency coordination when these issues are veteran-centric."

The administration's proposal cuts the VA medical and prosthetic research budget by 8 percent and veterans' rehabilitation research by 7 percent.

It also slashes construction funds for new medical facilities by about 44 percent, with grants for construction of extended care facilities losing 49 percent.

Moreover, after the 2009 VA budget increase, the Bush plan calls for billions of dollars in budget cuts over the next four years, according to Filner. For a system already playing a losing game of catch-up, the reductions could be devastating.

"The VA's backlog of claims and appeals has been exacerbated by funding shortfalls," said Jay Agg, national communications director for American Veterans (AMVETS). "Currently, 870,000 veterans are awaiting decisions from the VA, a process that may take many months or even years. That's about the same size as 15 Yankee Stadiums full of veterans."

The administration has shown no signs of altering its 2009 VA request; in fact, it is currently immersed in a lawsuit defending its right to deny health care to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

However, veterans' advocacy groups aren't giving up. During last Thursday's testimony, Jones and representatives from several other organizations, including AMVETS, presented "The Independent Budget" (IB): their own proposal for next year's VA spending. It would up the Bush budget by almost $3 billion, emphasizing mental health research and medical facility construction.

"The IB is by veterans, for veterans, and provides a full picture of veterans' needs and how our government can meet them," Agg said. "Our position is that the administration and Congress, having authorized funding for war, must now be prepared to provide sufficient, timely and predictable funding to meet the needs of our war fighters."

Despite the Bush administration's firm stance on the VA budget, some advocates see signs of hope. Last Thursday's hearing was not a battle, according to Sullivan; in fact, administration officials appeared interested in listening to what the "other side" had to say.

"While Secretary Peake and VA's top political appointees testified first, they broke their usual pattern of quickly departing the hearing room," Sullivan said. "Instead of bolting for the door, Peake asked Under Secretary Kussman and Under Secretary Cooper to remain, and they all remained and listened to the testimony of ten different [veteran] groups."

As casualties mount and the end of the Bush administration draws nearer, Congress will take up the VA request and, likely by this summer, propose its own version of the budget.

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