Veteran's Health Care Crisis

The President's 2007 budget would increase the Department of Veterans Affairs funding by nearly 9 billion dollars. But Texas lawmakers are concerned about a proposal that would force some veterans to shoulder more of their own health care costs. Benjamin Shaw reports from Capitol Hill.

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With rising health care costs the Bush administration is looking for a way to reign in Veteran's Affairs spending. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the total VA medical budget increased by 40 percent from 1999 to 2004. VA Secretary James Nicholson says asking some veterans to pay 21 dollars a month for insurance and 7 dollars more on drug co-payments is reasonable. He says the fee would raise $795 million for the VA.

"I personally believe in these policy proposals. I think they're reasonable in the overall context of this giant benefits and health care system."

Over 7-and-a-half million Veterans are enrolled in the VA health care system. Last year, over 12 thousand of those vets were treated at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center. Republican Texas Senator John Cornyn says spending for Veterans is not sustainable if it continues at its current rate.

"We got to figure some way to pay the bills and figure out our commitment to veterans at the same time."

But Cornyn wouldn't commit to the President's budget proposal - saying at this point it's just that: a proposal. Texas Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison says she voted against a similar proposal last year and will do the same this year.

"I do not support asking veterans to have a $250 sign-up fee and a co-pay that is double what they pay now."

Quentin Kinderman is a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He says the VA is trying to save money by discouraging use of its services.

"It's in essence a way of reducing the number of people the VA serves. It might be a circumstance where that would deny people care because they couldn't get the $250 dollars to get in there and enroll."

Larry Craig chairs the Senate Veteran's Committee. The Idaho Republican says the fee would only hit non-disabled, high income vets.

"These kinds of fee increases are with those with no service connected problem and would simply choose to use Vets health care as their healthcare even though they might already have insurance or other kinds of healthcare."

Errors in forecasting VA health care costs led to a 1 billion dollar shortfall in 2005. And Congress had to pass an emergency spending bill to tide the agency over. This makes Democrats and Veterans groups skeptical about this year's plan. But Craig says that won't happen again.

"We believe corrections have been made. I'm going to continue to pursue a very aggressive oversight process with the VA to make sure that our numbers are as accurate as we can get."

Of this year's budget, VA Secretary Nicholson has promised that his agency is quote 'On top of it.' For Houston Public Radio, I'm Benjamin Shaw on Capitol Hill.

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