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VETERANS' COMMITTEE REJECTS ADMINISTRATION BUDGET; ADDS $2.3 BILLION TO IMPROVE AILING SERVICES, BRACE FOR MILITARY DRAWDOWN

VETERANS' COMMITTEE REJECTS ADMINISTRATION BUDGET; ADDS $2.3 BILLION
 TO IMPROVE AILING SERVICES, BRACE FOR MILITARY DRAWDOWN
 WASHINGTON, Feb. 21 /PRNewswire/ -- Rejecting the administration's claim that its latest budget proposal will "improve the delivery of benefits and services to the nation's veterans," a House panel has made its own recommendations to address funding shortfalls which have driven some VA programs "well below minimum standards of acceptability."
 By ignoring administration attempts to increase home loan fees, cut education benefits and further restrict access to medical care, among other proposed reductions, the House Veterans' Affairs Committee effectively added more than $1.1 billion back to the budget submitted by the White House in January. The committee added another $731 million to discretionary accounts -- medical care and other functions for which there must be annual appropriations -- and $461 million in legislative initiatives. The total VA budget recommended by the committee is $36.6 billion, $15 billion of which would be used for direct medical care.
 "Consistent with its history, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) again failed to appreciate the service of our nation's veterans," said Committee Chairman Sonny Montgomery (D-Miss.). "I would pose a simple question to the people who thought we would take this budget seriously: Why stand in the way of a veteran -- a man or woman who defended our freedom with their very lives -- who simply wants to better himself, provide for his family or receive needed medical treatment?"
 Arizona Congressman Bob Stump (R), the committee's ranking Republican, said the American public "has long supported our efforts to provide benefits and services for the courageous men and women who have served in our Armed Forces. Despite current budgetary constraints, the administration and Congress should place the highest priority upon improving and expanding -- not just maintaining -- veterans' programs."
 "It is ironic to note that even the administration's proposed addition of $1 billion for medical care will create a further decline in service to veterans," wrote the committee in a letter accompanying its report to Budget Committee Chairman Leon Panetta (D-Calif.). Nearly 90 percent of this proposed increase represents fixed costs, primarily payroll and inflation. It is estimated that at least another $300 million is needed for VA to "break even," to continue to deliver next year the same level of medical services it now delivers, and the committee cautions that even the "current services" mark is an unacceptable objective.
 Most of VA's 172 medical centers have been restricting access to care and cutting services in order to absorb the impact of years of budget deficiencies. The committee warns that the administration's proposed FY '93 budget "would force the department to lengthen waiting lines, forego the purchase of beneficial but costly new drugs and defer replacing obsolete medical equipment." In short, said the committee, the administration plan "would result in deterioration in service to patients." In response, the committee added another $411 million to the medical care account, which would: permit an additional 500,000 outpatient visits and shorten waits for clinical treatment; enable VA to purchase badly-needed drugs and medical equipment; expand extended care programs for a rapidly-increasing older veteran population; establish additional post-traumatic stress treatment units; and expand and create new programs to combat homelessness.
 The committee rejected an administration bid to require, for the first time ever, certain service-connected veterans to pay for a portion of their VA-provided care, saying it would instead work with the nation's veterans' service organizations "to eliminate obstacles which now impede veterans from receiving the level of VA care clinically needed." The Veterans' Affairs Committee also recommended to the Budget Committee legislation which would authorize VA to keep all monies collected from private insurers rather than turning the funds over to the U.S. Treasury, the current statutory requirement.
 Medical care is not the only program experiencing a critical shortfall. The most recent available statistics show that 75 percent of veterans who file applications for VA compensation benefits for service-related disabilities must wait more than 90 days for their claims to be processed, the result of deep staff cuts over the past 10-12 years. Notwithstanding the fact that the claims workload is expected to increase substantially due to a massive military drawdown which will force thousands of personnel out of the service, the administration has called for another 538 adjudication positions to be eliminated. The committee rejected this and countered with a recommendation for an additional 711 full-time employees in VA's regional benefits offices.
 Despite the soaring cost of education, neither the current nor the prior administration has sought an increase in GI Bill benefits since the current program's inception in 1984. This year, the administration is proposing an additional $1.2 billion -- a 22 percent increase -- in funding for Pell Grants, characterizing it as "major new relief from the rising cost of higher education." In sharp contrast, however, the administration would reduce veterans' education benefits by requiring that the basic pay reduction required under the GI Bill be increased from $100 to $117 per month for 12 months with no corresponding increase in the level of the earned benefit. The current basic benefit of $350 a month for active-duty personnel, according to the Congressional Research Service, is less than half the amount required to put a college education within reasonable grasp of GI Bill participants. The committee plans to seek a modest $450 per month active-duty benefit and a $200 benefit for Guard and reserve personnel, an increase of $30.
 To date, the Montgomery GI Bill has had 1.2 million participants. Approximately $870 million has been expended for education assistance under the program. However, as a result of the pay reductions, more than $1.2 billion has been returned to the Treasury and the government has saved millions more by not having to borrow the money to pay these benefits.
 "Not only did we design an education program which will have a tremendous impact on the national economy and productivity, as well as military strength, we made it cost-effective," said Montgomery. "It is beyond me why OMB has so consistently and blatantly ignored one of the most viable methods of delivering education in this country, particularly to those individuals who have earned it through military service and who otherwise could not afford it."
 The committee also dismissed administration efforts to increase the fees veteran borrowers must pay in order to secure VA-guaranteed home loans, a "thinly disguised and tired OMB scheme to diminish, perhaps kill, the program," said Montgomery.
 "Last year, at this time our thoughts were on events in the Persian Gulf. America's finest men and women won a decisive victory there. Today, we're looking at an unprecedented drawdown of military personnel," said Montgomery. "Support for our troops -- those who won the peace -- means more than speaking proudly of them and holding parades. We must provide the men and women separating from the Armed Forces today with a meaningful benefits package which will ease their transition to civilian life and ensure for all veterans every opportunity to continue as productive, contributing citizens."
 In the letter accompanying its recommendations, the Veterans' Affairs Committee urged the budget panel to "keep in mind that the warriors who helped preserve the peace should be the primary beneficiaries of any peace dividend," funds cut from defense spending -- the product of post-Cold War military posture -- and redirected to domestic programs.
 "Although many alternative uses for these monies have been mentioned in the media by the leadership in both Houses (of Congress) and on both sides of the aisle, the most deserving, appropriate group to benefit from a defense reduction has not been discussed," said Montgomery and Stump in a separate letter to House leaders.
 -0- 2/21/92
 /CONTACT: Jim Holley of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, 202-225-3527/ CO: House Veterans Affairs Committee ST: District of Columbia IN: SU:


DC-MH -- DC011 -- 1399 02/21/92 12:54 EST
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Date:Feb 21, 1992
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