WASHINGTON – For
years, Rep. Bob Filner has championed full funding for
veterans' health care.
Now that Filner is calling the shots as chairman of the
House Veterans' Affairs Committee, the San Diego Democrat
has perhaps his first real chance to transform rhetoric
into reality – and on an issue that has captured the
national spotlight, no less.
Recent congressional hearings on conditions at Walter
Reed Army Medical Center revealed, in the opinion of some,
that the federal government has failed its veterans.
Discoveries of substandard quarters and slow access to
medical services were just some of the problems the
nation's wounded veterans faced when coming home. The
subsequent removal of Maj. Gen. George Weightman as Walter
Reed's commander was, in Filner's opinion, the “first step
in accepting responsibility for the treatment of our
By no means does
Filner intend for it to be the last.
Filner sees the Walter Reed fiasco as one illustration
of a pattern of federal neglect of veterans – not just in
medical care, but also in mental health care, housing,
education, support for families of deceased veterans and
help when service members transition from the military to
the private sector.
Filner may have no better opportunity to make an
immediate mark as committee chairman than on the federal
budget that President Bush just proposed for 2008. Filner
says it falls far short.
“We have a president who says, 'support the troops,
support the troops, support the troops' – but when they
get home, they're on their own,” Filner said. “We spend $1
billion every two and a half days in Iraq but
nickel-and-dime our veterans. We have funded the war, but
not the warriors.”
Veterans Affairs Secretary James Nicholson called
Bush's $87 billion request for the Department of Veterans
Affairs a “landmark budget.” True, it is the largest VA
budget request in history. True, the VA budget has grown
by $37.8 billion since Bush took office, and is now about
77 percent higher than it was in 2001.
Now comes the shot of sobriety: First, the Bush
proposal would nearly double the VA health care co-pay and
create enrollment fees of as much as $750 for veterans on
the higher end of the income scale.
To help balance the federal budget by 2012, Bush would
begin cutting funding for veterans' health care in 2009
and 2010, then freeze it after that. The budget for
hospital and medical care for veterans, now at $35.6
billion, would rise to $39.6 billion next year under
Bush's proposed 2008 budget, roughly a 9 percent increase.
In 2009, the same budget would be cut back to $38.8
billion and would stay about that level through 2012. It's
a bit like learning that you are getting a 9 percent pay
raise, but it has to last you the next five years.
Two years ago Congress had to pass an emergency $1.5
billion infusion for veterans' health programs, then had
to add $2.7 billion to Bush's request for 2006. That's
because the VA underestimated the number of veterans who
were seeking care. One hopes the president's latest budget
plan accounts for the number of veterans coming into the
VA health care system from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars –
a number that is expected to increase 26 percent next
Filner will be proposing billions more in federal
spending to help aging veterans of World War II, the
homeless, Agent Orange-battered Vietnam War veterans,
those with Gulf War syndrome and “the kids coming home
today with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and TBI
(traumatic brain injury).”
He would use the money to clean out the backlog of
600,000 disability claims at the VA, and to update the GI
Bill with what he calls “complete education benefits.”
Filner also wants to create a new oversight committee,
composed of veterans and health professionals that would
make sure this money is properly spent.
“Clearly, we need an oversight and inspection system
that is separate from the agency that is being overseen,”
Dana Wilkie is a
Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and
a longtime observer of California politics and social