LETTER FROM WASHINGTON | DANA WILKIE
Bob Filner's big chance

March 12, 2007

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 wounded soldiers.”

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 year.

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,” he said.

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.

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