From: Strider, Burns <burns.strider@mail.house.gov>
Subject: "When a $3.5 Billion 'Increase' Isn't a $3.5 Billion Increase"
Date: Tue, 7 Feb 2006 18:21:06 -0500

The following statement is from our top Democrat, Congressman Lane Evans (D-IL), on the House Veterans Affairs Committee:

The Bush Administration's VA Budget Request: "When a $3.5 Billion 'Increase' Isn't a $3.5 Billion Increase"

Washington, D.C. - "Baffling."  That's how Rep. Lane Evans (D-IL) characterized the Bush Administration's claim that it's newly submitted budget proposal for veterans' benefits and services is "landmark."  A news release issued by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in conjunction with the President's fiscal year '07 funding recommendation proclaims the "the largest increase in VA's medical care funding ever requested by a President."

Evans, the ranking Democratic member on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, calls the Administration's landmark statement "baffling when even a cursory review of the budget submission indicates that a significant increase in discretionary funds is due to veterans paying more for care - this budget is misleading, at best, and insulting, at worst," said Evans.

The President's fiscal year 2007 VA budget submission calls for a veterans' health care budget of $34.3 billion, "an increase of $3.5 billion (or 11.3 percent) more than 2006," according to the VA release.  Although on its face correct, and an improvement from last year's recommended increase of less than 1 percent, the President's budget does not request enough to meet the federal government's obligations to veterans.

"Hiding in plain sight in this budget is more of what we've come to expect from this White House," said Evans, "legislative proposals designed to force more veterans out of the VA health care system, millions of dollars in claimed management efficiencies that VA cannot document, overly optimistic projected collections from private insurers, and fixed cost increases that are not so much a gift from the Administration as something that is automatic and expected."

Evans said that the Administration's claim of a landmark increase of $3.5 billion, while technically correct, is "quickly countered and, in fact, nearly negated" by $1.2 billion in necessary annual payroll and inflation costs; nearly $800 million in legislative proposals that would establish user fees for health care and nearly double prescription copayments for some veterans, both of which have been repeatedly rejected by Congress and which "won't see the light of day this year either," according to Evans.

Evans noted that the Bush Administration budget submitted to Congress on Monday comes on the heels of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit that found VA's budget numbers unreliable due to unsound accounting practices, specifically, overestimation of management efficiency savings to offset increased appropriations requests.   Notwithstanding GAO's findings, the Administration's fiscal year '07 budget request calls for another round of unproven management efficiencies, for a total of $1.08 billion in unrealized savings in the past two years.  Moreover, in the summer of 2005, VA conceded that the White House underestimated the number of wounded servicemembers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, thereby requiring a series of emergency supplemental appropriation requests just to keep the VA afloat. 

Evans said that VA sources are indicating to his staff that some VA regional health care networks and the medical facilities they oversee are facing budget shortfalls in the current fiscal year and again will be forced to delay equipment purchases and hiring of hospital staff to close the gap.

"This Administration is employing a shell game to appear as if it is adequately responding to veterans' needs when, in fact, it is methodically suppressing demand for VA care, discouraging veterans from attempting to seek VA assistance, pressing veterans themselves to overcome White House-induced budget shortcomings, and dramatically altering the vital mission of the VA.  Landmark, indeed," said Evans.

The House Committee on Veterans' Affairs has scheduled a series of hearings on the Bush Administration's budget proposal beginning with a February 8 full Committee inquiry at which the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and representatives from a number of veterans' service organizations will testify.