Warning on cuts in veterans' health care; Senators oppose Bush proposal (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

By Jennifer Dlouhy

WASHINGTON -- Democratic senators warned Wednesday that a Bush administration proposal to cut VA medical center construction funding and boost prescription drug co-payments would be devastating to former service members.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the proposals -- part of the Bush administration's budget request for fiscal 2009 -- "would close the VA's door to thousands of our nation's veterans."

Murray's comments came during a hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, which was reviewing President Bush's requested budget.

Bush has asked Congress to spend $93.7 billion on veterans -- $3.4 billion more than the current fiscal year. The extra money includes higher spending on the health care of veterans returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Department of Veterans Affairs anticipates treating 333,000 veterans from the current conflicts in fiscal 2009 -- 40,000 more than expected this year.

Bush would pay for some of the increase by slashing in half the spending on VA construction projects -- from $1.1 billion this year to $587 million in fiscal 2009.

At least two projects at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System in the Seattle area would lose funding under Bush's plan -- a $43 million project to make a nursing building meet current seismic standards and the construction of a mental health services building, which carries a price tag of $178 million.

Bush also has proposed new enrollment fees of up to $750 for some veterans and increasing co-payments for prescription drugs for higher-income veterans who were not disabled as part of their military service. Under the president's proposal, those co-payments would jump from $8 to $15.

The administration sought similar new fees last year, but Congress rejected the idea.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, predicted lawmakers would once again refuse to increase the co-payments.

"Year after year, Congress throws this in the garbage can where it should belong," Sanders said.

Murray, the panel's third-ranking Democrat, said the fees would "discourage many veterans from accessing the VA -- even as our veterans are turning to the VA in larger numbers than ever before."

Newly installed Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake defended the administration's proposal, saying that money for treatment of veterans would be twice as high as when Bush took office seven years ago.

The VA has sought new fees for some higher-income veterans without service-related disabilities so it can continue to focus first on treating former service members who were injured in the military, Peake said. "Our priority, I think, is appropriately those with (service-related injuries) or a severe economic need," he said.

Murray said the construction projects slated for cutbacks are important to modernize decades-old VA buildings. On average, VA buildings are 57 years old.