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On November 30, President Bush signed the "Military Quality of Life and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act, 2006." Much was said about the military and little was said about veterans. The President's only mention of veterans in his 474-word statement was, "The Act also provides funds to support the medical care and other needs of our Nation's veterans."

Why the deliberate lack of attention to the healthcare budget for the Department of Veterans' Affairs (VA)? Because it is a cause of great embarrassment to the Bush administration. This VA healthcare budget is such political bad news that the Bush appointees who run the veterans' agency won't even comment on it. Numerous requests for interviews have been met with, "No one is available."

While President Bush claims to "Support Our Troops" in every speech, he hides the checkbook when it comes to supporting our veterans. The new VA healthcare budget, once again, leaves countless thousands of veterans in a life-and-death struggle for medical services.

Administration officials brag of a "53 per cent increase in the VA budget in President Bush's first five years in office." What they forget to explain is that most of the VA budget is made up of components that are part of the mandatory budget process. The overall VA budget would have gone up no matter who was President.

However, the healthcare portion of the VA budget must be hammered-out in Congress every year as part of the discretionary budget process. Republicans claim the VA healthcare budget for this fiscal year is a whopping $22.5 billion, a 17 per cent increase over last year. A closer look at those numbers shows a budget that is nothing more than a "shell game" according to veterans' groups who have analyzed the figures. --You never know where the pea is," said Richard Fuller, national legislative director for Paralyzed Veterans of America.

$1.5 billion of the budget is a promised carryover from last fiscal year. Except, no one knows if that money exists. If it does, no one knows where it is. And, there appears to be no mechanism to carryover funds into the new budget. So, we have to scratch that figure and now the budget is down to $21 billion.

Then there is $1.2 billion stipulated as emergency funding. Those funds can only be released by President Bush if he declares a funding emergency at the VA. This won't happen. Last fiscal year Republicans refused to admit there was a budget shortfall at the VA until the reality was forced on them by Democrats. VA Secretary Jim Nicholson said of the billion-plus dollar shortfall, "A crisis? I don't agree." So now we take out the $1.2 billion and the budget is down to $19.8 billion.

At $19.8 billion, the VA healthcare budget is just 2.6 per cent larger than last fiscal year. This figure is immediately turned into a negative. Inflation in the healthcare sector supplying goods and services to the VA has averaged 5.6 per cent per year for the last five years. The negative becomes larger when we factor in a 3.1 per cent pay raise for VA employees.

Now we have a VA healthcare budget with less spending power than it had the year before. For the last few years many VA hospitals have been so underfunded that they have instituted hiring freezes, closed patient wards and cut essential services to the point where they are turning away qualified veterans seeking necessary healthcare.

Add to chronic underfunding a dramatic increase in the number of veterans seeking VA healthcare. There are three main groups. The first is middle-aged, qualified veterans who have never used the VA system and now find themselves, because of unemployment or under-employment, without healthcare benefits. The second is older veterans who have discovered that it is less expensive to use the VA pharmacy than it is to purchase medications through Medicare.

The third group is veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although the official Pentagon list of wounded stands at just over 15,000, the reality is eight times that figure. It depends on your definition of wounded. The VA's latest figures (released in October) show that of 433,398 troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, 119,247 have sought medical treatment.

Of those 119,247 veterans, 39 per cent have joint and back and connective system disorders, 30.9 per cent have mental problems, 30.1 per cent have diseases of the digestive system and 27.1 per cent suffer from diseases of the nervous system or sense organs. Also, 15.5 per cent have been poisoned and 15.1 per cent exhibit problems with metabolism, nutritional, thyroid, parathyroid, adrenal, pancreas, and pituitary gland diseases. The list continues with 12.9 per cent having diseases of the circulatory system and 12.8 per cent having skin diseases. Obviously, many of the veterans suffer from more than a single disease or condition.

The above laundry list represents the tip of the iceberg when it comes to medical problems that will be experienced by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. As they age many will experience acute PTSD symptoms. And, the effects of exposure to depleted uranium munitions, a subject on which the Department of Defense is eerily silent, may lead to catastrophic health conditions.

The Bush administration harshly admonishes anyone who says there has been a cut in VA benefits. They point only to the increased dollar amount of the overall VA budget. But, as VA hospitals are closed and services cut back, it is safe to say that a CUT IN SERVICES is a CUT IN BENEFITS. The miniscule "real dollar" increase in the VA healthcare budget turns into "fewer usable dollars" when inflation and the increased number of veterans needing healthcare are factored-in.

Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, expressed concern and dismay over the VA healthcare budget. "I will not be surprised at all if we have, once again, short-funded vets," she said last week.

What will become of the veterans who are denied healthcare by the VA or who are put on waiting lists that can delay medical treatment for as long as 36 months? Some veterans will seek healthcare in the private sector and go into debt to pay for medical treatment that should have been provided by the VA. Other veterans will try to get help from state Medicaid programs if they can get accepted.

And, some veterans will simply do without and hope""
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Larry Scott served four years in the U.S. Army with overseas tours as a Broadcast Journalist in Korea and the Azores and a stateside tour as a Broadcast Journalism Instructor at the Defense Information School (DINFOS). He was awarded DOD's First Place Thomas Jefferson Award for (more...)
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