WASHINGTON — The Bush administration’s budget assumes cuts to funding for veterans’ health care two years from now — even as badly wounded troops returning from Iraq could overwhelm the system.
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Bush is using the cuts, critics say, to help fulfill his pledge to balance the budget by 2012. But even administration allies say the numbers are not real and are being used to make the overall budget picture look better.
After an increase sought for next year, the Bush budget would turn current trends on their head. Even though the cost of providing medical care to veterans has been growing rapidly — by more than 10 percent in many years — White House budget documents assume consecutive cutbacks in 2009 and 2010 and a freeze thereafter.
The proposed cuts are unrealistic in light of recent VA budget trends — its medical care budget has risen every year for two decades and 83 percent in the six years since Bush took office — sowing suspicion that the White House is simply making them up to make its long-term deficit figures look better.
“Either the administration is willingly proposing massive cuts in VA health care,” said Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas, chairman of the panel overseeing the VA’s budget. “Or its promise of a balanced budget by 2012 is based on completely unrealistic assumptions.”
A spokesman for Larry Craig, R-Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, called the White House moves another step in a longtime “budgeting game.”
“No one who is knowledgeable about VA budgeting issues anticipates any cuts to VA funding. None. Zero. Zip,” said Craig spokesman Jeff Schrade.
Edwards said that a more realistic estimate of veterans costs is $16 billion higher than the Bush estimate for 2012.
In fact, even the White House doesn’t seem serious about the numbers. It says the long-term budget numbers don’t represent actual administration policies. Similar cuts assumed in earlier budgets have been reversed.
The veterans cuts, said White House budget office spokesman Sean Kevelighan, “don’t reflect any policy decisions. We’ll revisit them when we do the (future) budgets.”
The number of veterans coming into the VA health care system has been rising by about 5 percent a year as the number of people returning from Iraq with illnesses or injuries keep rising. Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans represent almost 5 percent of the VA’s patient caseload, and many are returning from battle with grievous injuries requiring costly care, such as traumatic brain injuries.
All told, the VA expects to treat about 5.8 million patients next year, including 263,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The White House budget office, however, assumes that the veterans’ medical services budget — up 83 percent since Bush took office and winning a big increase in Bush’s proposed 2008 budget — can absorb a 2 percent cut the following year and remain essentially frozen for three years in a row after that.
The White House made virtually identical assumptions last year — a big increase in the first year of the budget and cuts for every year thereafter to veterans medical care. Now, the White House estimate for 2008 is more than $4 billion higher than Bush figured last year.
And the VA has been known to get short-term estimates wrong as well. Two years ago, Congress had to pass an emergency $1.5 billion infusion for veterans health programs for 2005 and added $2.7 billion to Bush’s request for 2006. The VA underestimated the number of veterans, including those from Iraq and Afghanistan, who were seeking care, as well as the cost of treatment and long-term care.
The budget for hospital and medical care for veterans is funded for the current year at $35.6 billion, and would rise to $39.6 billion in 2008 under Bush’s budget. That’s about 9 percent. But the budget faces a cut to $38.8 billion in 2009 and would hover around that level through 2012.
The cuts come even as the number of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is expected to increase 26 percent next year.
In Bush’s proposal to balance the budget by 2012, he’s assuming that spending on domestic agency operating budgets will increase by about 1 percent each year.
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