The Bush administration admitted yesterday that its request for veterans' health care in fiscal 2006 is short by nearly $2 billion and asked Congress to fund the shortfall.
The request comes two weeks after the administration conceded that the 2005 amount passed by Congress and signed by the president -- already more than Mr. Bush had requested -- was short and that Congress must pass a $975 million emergency spending bill to make up the difference.
Although the House passed that $975 million request, over the objection of Democrats who sought still more, the Senate has twice passed amendments to spending bills calling for an additional $1.5 billion in 2005.
Veterans funding has turned into a winning political issue for Democrats, who have gained with veterans groups by supporting their complaints that the administration is underfunding promised health care.
Mr. Bush, meanwhile, has had to admit twice that he underfunded the needs.
In a letter yesterday to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, the president asked for $1.977 billion in addition to the $21 billion bill the House already passed. That was already $1 billion more than Mr. Bush requested in his budget in February.
"My Administration is committed to ensuring that our Nation's veterans continue to receive timely and high-quality health care," Mr. Bush wrote. "I am requesting these resources to cover the expected increased costs in FY 2006 that VA will experience in its medical care budget."
White House Office of Management and Budget Director Joshua B. Bolten testified to the House Budget Committee yesterday that part of the problem is that Congress and the Bush administration had overspent from 2002 to 2004.
"The appropriations have exceeded the VA medical care needs in the preceding three years by over half a billion dollars in each of the preceding three years," Mr. Bolten said, according to Democrats on the committee, who said they were "appalled" by the statement.
"Anyone willing to visit our VA hospitals would know that there are hiring freezes, delays in veterans getting doctor's appointments and postponement of important medical equipment purchases because VA health-care funding has not kept up with veterans' needs," said Rep. Chet Edwards, Texas Democrat.
Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, also criticized Mr. Bolten's comments, noting reports of veterans being turned away from hospitals or not being able to get prescriptions filled.
"What planet are these administration officials living on if they think we're spending too much on veterans?" Mr. Kerry said. "What veterans are they talking to? Not the ones I've met, that's for sure."