WASHINGTON – A unanimous House quickly passed a bill to meet a nearly $1 billion shortfall in veterans health (search) care that surprised and frustrated lawmakers. Senators, who said that was not enough, had approved $500 million more.
Now the movement to quickly inject extra money into veterans medical services must slow down for the House and Senate iron out the $500 million difference in their response to the unforeseen shortage.
"When we get back from the Fourth of July break, my guess is we can get our heads together at that point," said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee (search).
Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson (search) disclosed last week that unexpectedly high health care demands had eaten a hole in its budget. President Bush, a week later, asked for more money.
The House and Senate assembled separate spending packages to fill the void. The House voted 419-0 late Thursday for a $975 million supplemental spending bill for veterans a day after the Senate voted unanimously to give the department an extra $1.5 billion to cover the health care shortfall and more. That would allow the VA to carry unused funds into next year.
Craig said senators want to stick to their larger, $1.5 billion promise to veterans until they've talked with White House officials about the new budget year beginning Oct. 1. Nicholson's disclosure of this year's budget shortfall came with a warning that rising health care demands mean the VA needs more money than expected next year, too.
While the House and Senate work toward agreement on how much to spend this year to cover the shortage, lawmakers assured veterans they won't see any interruption in health care services. The VA can shift money among its other accounts to meet immediate expenses, they said.
"No veteran is going to be refused service," Craig said. "Nothing has been shut down."
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., criticized the White House for not following the Senate's lead and requesting more than $975 million that the VA says it needs to meet this year's immediate expenses.
"Instead of stepping up and admitting that its funding shortfall is alarming, the White House wants to shortchange our veterans," Byrd said.
Democrats have complained continually this year that the GOP ignored an apparent increase in health care demand at VA facilities and rejected their repeated requests for more money.
"This did not have to happen," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said. "Veterans across our country did not have to hear that the government had underfunded their health care."
Nicholson said most of the shortfall can be traced unexpected health care demands from veterans of all combat eras. The department also underestimated the number of wounded troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Nicholson told lawmakers that the VA had the problem in hand. By rearranging funds in its maintenance accounts and using a budgetary cushion, the VA could satisfactorily manage the problem without extra money.
Lawmakers and veterans groups rejected that solution, fearing erosion in veterans services as the VA stretched the dollars through the last months of the budgetary year.