A Veterans Affairs Department decision to suspend health care enrollment for some higher income vets demonstrates the need for better funding for the department, lawmakers said.

The agency is suspending enrollment as of Friday for veterans with higher incomes who don't have military service-related ailments or injuries and use the VA for health care ranging from routine visits to heart disease.

The enrollment suspension, scheduled to last through 2003, goes against VA policy set in 1996 when Congress ordered the agency to open health care to nearly all veterans. The change is expected to affect about 164,000 veterans.

The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., said the decision was disappointing, but "underscores the need to develop long-term solutions to VA's health care funding problems."

A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., accused the Bush administration of choosing tax cuts for the wealthy over veterans' care.

"If we are going to spend a trillion dollars on a tax cut, we should be able to find money for all those who served," Daschle spokesman Jay Carson said.

In an interview, VA Secretary Anthony Principi said the agency has been struggling to provide adequate health care to a rapidly rising number of veterans. The VA's patient population ballooned from 2.9 million in 1996 to 6.8 million today, Principi said.

"People might say, 'Well, Mr. Secretary, what kind of message does this send to people who may deploy to the Persian Gulf?'" Principi said.

"I have a son in the Gulf who may deploy to Iraq, who may fight a war if the president chooses. I think it sends a positive message that the VA is there for those who are disabled (while) in uniform," he said, adding that a VA priority also is to provide health care for recent combat veterans.

Ronald Conley, American Legion national commander, agreed with Principi that Congress has not provided the agency enough money to fulfill its mandate to provide care to nearly all veterans.

"The Congress of the United States has to properly fund it and this is the bottom line. And the president has to go to Congress and tell them they have to fund it," Conley said.

Principi said he expects President Bush to propose a 7.7 percent increase in the VA's health care budget for 2004, but he said it would not be enough.

The enrollment suspension applies to those considered the lowest priority for benefits. They are veterans with the highest incomes and no military service-related health problems, known as Category 8 veterans.

Just what level of income constitutes Category 8 status depends on where the veteran lives and the size of the veterans' household. For instance, unmarried veterans making more than $38,100 in Atlanta or more than $23,050 in Abilene, Texas, would be considered Category 8 veterans.

The 6.8 million veterans already enrolled in the VA, including 1.4 million Category 8 veterans, would not be affected by Principi's decision. The VA estimates that about 164,000 Category 8 veterans would have enrolled this year.

About 18.2 million U.S. veterans do not use VA health care.

Principi, who is required by law to review enrollments every year, had warned Congress last session that he might be forced to limit enrollments if lawmakers did not approve a proposed $1,500 deductible for higher-income vets.

Congress balked at the proposal, which was heavily criticized by some veterans groups.

Principi said the VA needs the enrollment "time out" to get a handle on its current workload and reduce waiting times that can be as long as six months.

Meanwhile, Principi said he and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson would try to work through regulations to allow the VA to be reimbursed for services provided to Medicare-eligible veterans, generally those over 65 years old.

Principi said he hopes the enrollment limit and Medicare changes will help meet an end-of-the-year goal for veterans to wait no longer than 30 days to see a primary care physician and slightly longer for a specialist.