- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2003

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Veterans health care needs consistent funding to deal with increased demand, a presidential panel says in a report.

The panel recommends, in a report prepared for release yesterday, that Congress change how it pays for veterans health care to guarantee that most veterans get care and don’t have long waits for appointments.

The panel was created in 2001 to improve coordination of health care programs at the departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense.

It recommends further cooperation between VA and the Defense Department to facilitate a veteran’s move from active-duty health care to VA — but says that’s not enough.

“The apparent mismatch in VA between demand for access and available funding is too large to be solved by collaboration alone,” the 15-member panel said in its report, portions of which were obtained by the Associated Press. The task force sent its report to President Bush on Monday.

The panel suggested two ways to achieve full funding:

• Creation of an appointed, independent panel to determine each year how much money should be allocated for veterans health care. That money would be protected from the scrutiny of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, and any reductions the OMB would demand.

• Mandatory funding for VA health care, much like Medicaid and Medicare. Money for health care would be based on a formula that provides a per veteran amount, determined by the number of enrollees.

Veterans advocates have sought guaranteed financing for health care for years, but proposals have been thwarted because of the cost. The push has picked up as demand has grown for veterans health care.

“I would hope the administration, since this is their task force, established by them, embraces what [panel members] have to say and takes some steps to eliminate this mismatch of funding,” said Joe Violante, national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans.

Rep. Christopher H. Smith, House Veterans’ Affairs chairman, previously has sponsored legislation to provide full funding. Mr. Smith, New Jersey Republican, said Tuesday that he wants to help develop the full-funding system recommended by the panel.

Veterans Affairs health care was opened to all veterans in 1997. The population ballooned from 2.9 million in 1996 to about 6.8 million today.

To help reduce appointment waits, Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony J. Principi in January prohibited new enrollments of veterans with the highest earnings and no health problems related to their military service. The task force chastised Congress and the administration for keeping those veterans guessing about their future enrollment eligibility.

“Individual veterans have not known from year to year if they will be granted access to VA care,” the report said. It called the situation unacceptable, saying, “The president and Congress should work together to solve this problem.”

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