House Panel OKs Billions for Soldiers' Health

A House (search) spending panel, concerned that soldiers and veterans are not getting the mental health services they need, agreed on Wednesday to boost spending on military health care by billions of dollars.

Lawmakers also commissioned a study on post-traumatic stress disorder.

Rep. James Walsh (search), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that controls spending on military and veterans benefits, said lawmakers worry about the mental health of soldiers who are returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We heard it loud and clear from all members," said Walsh, R-N.Y.

The subcommittee agreed to devote $2.2 billion to veterans mental health care and instructed the Veterans Affairs Department (search) to devote 20 percent of its research money to mental health issues.

The programs are part of an $85.2 billion bill funding next year's soldiers and veterans benefits, along with military construction.

The bill funds defense health programs at $20 billion, almost 10 percent more than this year. The department would get $68.1 billion, about 3 percent more than currently spent.

Spending for veterans' medical services would grow by more than 8 percent next year to $21 billion. That includes the $2.2 billion dedicated to mental health.

The subcommittee urged the department to make a special effort for members of the National Guard and Reserves who return to civilian life after their deployment ends.

"This is the most vexing challenge for the VA, but it is not insurmountable," the subcommittee wrote in a report accompanying its bill.

The subcommittee also instructed the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs to start a 10-year study of the onset and nature of post-traumatic stress, panic and bipolar disorders in combat veterans.

Lawmakers said every VA medical center should have a specialized post-traumatic stress disorder team; only 86 of the 163 medical centers now have one.

The subcommittee did not authorize new fees that President Bush proposed to defray the cost of veterans' health care. Bush proposed charging some veterans a $250 annual registration fee and increasing their prescription drug co-payment to $15.