WASHINGTON – Veterans' health care (search) got a lot of attention in the just-concluded election campaign, but the Republican-led Congress is not devoting as much money to it as veterans groups and even some GOP lawmakers wanted.
The expenditure for veterans' health care will grow in 2005 to a record $30.3 billion, $1.9 billion more than this year, under the $388 billion spending bill Congress passed Saturday. Yet the total is $1.2 billion less than what the House Veterans Affairs Committee said last February was needed to maintain current benefits and services.
"The demand on the system has never been higher. The cost of health care has never been higher. This is not going to be adequate," said Richard Fuller, national legislative director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America.
David Autry, spokesman for Disabled American Veterans (search), said, "With the country at war, politicians make a big show about how much the country owes veterans. ... The commitment doesn't match reality."
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, led a sustained attack on the Bush administration's treatment of veterans, saying the health care system for them is underfunded.
President Bush (search) responded that his budget for veterans' health care for the 2005 government spending year was 40 percent higher than when he took office. Congress added $1.2 billion to his $29.7 billion proposal.
In the end, though, health care for veterans did not rise to the level of terrorism, the economy, moral values and Iraq. Those issues topped veterans' list of concerns, according to exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and the networks.
Veterans favored Bush over Kerry by 57 percent to 41 percent. Recent major election-day surveys before 2004 did not gather information from voters based on service status. The conventional wisdom among Democratic pollsters was that veterans favored Republicans.
Veterans groups said they are even more worried about the 2006 budget proposal, when Bush won't have an election looming before him.
"There could be even more bad news for veterans. We've heard agencies were told to prepare for cuts. The country is deeper in debt and the war is continuing," Autry said.