Congress in Dog Fight over Veterans’ Health Care Funding

Published July 13, 2004

A congressional measure guaranteeing increased annual federal payments to veterans’ health care programs failed on June 23 to muster the 60 votes needed in the Senate required for passage.

The measure, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota), would have increased spending for veterans’ health care by 30 percent next year and mandated annual funding increases based on the number of veterans and the cost of health care.

Veterans’ health benefits, delivered through the Veterans Administration (VA), are currently financed by annual appropriations by Congress. Congressional Democrats were proposing to impose annual mandatory financing, which they estimated as costing some $300 billion over 10 years. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry suggested the plan should be financed by tax increases: “The money could come from repealing some of the recent tax cuts for the wealthy,” he said.

But according to John Berthoud, president of the National Taxpayers Union, “Mr. Kerry can’t honestly say the measure could be paid for by reversing some of the Bush tax cuts (i.e., raising taxes), since he’s already proposed spending increases far in excess of any revenue that these tax increases might generate.

“Kerry is proposing a revenue source for the Daschle bill that Mr. Kerry has already over-committed elsewhere,” Berthoud said.

Daschle claimed the bill would have extended access to full health coverage to an additional 500,000 veterans. The measure was introduced as an amendment to a $447 billion defense authorization bill, which the Senate approved, without the Daschle amendment, by a unanimous vote of 97-0.

Frist Denies Tactic

On June 21, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, cancelled scheduled campaign appearances to return to Washington, DC to vote in favor of the measure. The vote did not take place on June 22 as scheduled, however, and Kerry was out of town on June 23, when the vote actually took place.

The delay made it impossible for Kerry to cast his vote in favor of veterans, who tend to favor Republicans at the ballot box. Political observers suggested Senate Republicans may have given Kerry a chance to accuse them of playing politics with veterans’ health benefits. But even if Kerry had been present, the vote in favor would have fallen short. Without Kerry, the Senate voted 49-48 in favor of the proposal, but 60 votes were required for passage because the bill violated budget limits.

Daschle accused Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) of being responsible for the delay. He told the media, “Frist noted to me as he was standing here that he didn’t want to accord Senator Kerry the opportunity to vote today, knowing, of course, Senator Kerry was here today.”

Frist denied delaying the vote to prevent Kerry from voting. Bush spokesperson Steve Schmidt said Kerry’s claim of unseemly Senate politicking was “baseless.” Schmidt also pointed out that Kerry had not been present for 80 percent of the Senate votes in the past year, including some other important measures relating to veterans’ health benefits.

Better Ways to Aid Veterans

“Sen. Daschle’s bill would have made the veterans’ health care system’s annual funding increases automatic, making it almost impossible to adjust them from year to year,” noted Merrill Matthews Ph.D., director of the Council for Affordable Health Insurance. “Keep in mind that Congress loosened eligibility rules in 1996, leading to a near doubling of veterans who use the system (2.5 million in 1995 vs. 4.7 million for 2004) and nearly doubled the spending ($16.2 billion in 1995 to $28.3 billion in 2004),” he continued.

“While Mr. Daschle may think his proposal would be ‘good politics’ in his re-election bid,” said Berthoud, “it is bad policy. Far too much of the federal budget has already gone on autopilot. To move even more spending in that direction is an abdication of responsibility. The Daschle proposal would make the coming entitlements budget crisis far worse.”

Noted CAHI’s Matthews, “While the purpose of the Daschle bill is to ensure that veterans have timely access to quality care, there is a better way to achieve that goal: Give them access to private-sector health care options. Allowing veterans to take their share of the funds to the private sector would increase options, reduce costs, and improve the quality for America’s veterans.”

Conrad F. Meier is managing editor of Health Care News. His email address is [email protected].