In the Feb. 15 Democratic debate, Kerry suggested that Bush was being unpatriotic: “He’s cut the VA (Veterans Administration) budget and not kept faith with veterans across this country. And one of the first definitions of patriotism is keeping faith with those who wore the uniform of our country.”
It is true that Bush is not seeking as big an increase for next year as the Secretary of Veterans Affairs wanted. It is also true that the administration has tried to slow the growth of spending for veterans by not giving new benefits to some middle-income vets.
Yet even so, funding for veterans is going up twice as fast under Bush as it did under Clinton. And the number of veterans getting health benefits is going up 25% under Bush’s budgets. That’s hardly a cut.
Funding for veterans benefits has accelerated in the Bush administration, as seen in the following table.
Fiscal years ending Sept. 30
Source: US Budget: Table 5.2 – Budget Authority by Agency
In Bush’s first three years funding for the Veterans Administration increased 27%. And if Bush’s 2005 budget is approved, funding for his full four-year term will amount to an increase of 37.6%.
In the eight years of the Clinton administration the increase was 31.7%
Those figures include mandatory spending for such things as payments to veterans for service-connected disabilities, over which Congress and presidents have little control. But Bush has increased the discretionary portion of veterans funding even more than the mandatory portion has increased. Discretionary funding under Bush is up 30.2%.
By any measure, veterans funding is going up faster under Bush than under Clinton.
One reason: the number of veterans getting benefits is increasing rapidly as middle-income veterans turn for health care to the expanding network of VA clinics and its generous prescription drug benefit.
According to the VA, the number of veterans signed up to get health benefits increased by 1.1 million, or 18%, during the first two fiscal years for which Bush signed the VA appropriations bills. And the numbers continue to grow. By the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30, the VA estimates that the total increase under Bush’s budgets will reach nearly 1.6 million veterans, an increase of 25.6 percent.
And according to the VA, the number of community health clinics has increased 40% during Bush’s three years, with accompanying increases in the numbers of outpatient visits (to 51 million last year) and prescriptions filled (to 108 million).
But They Keep Repeating: “It’s a Cut”
That’s just the opposite of the impression one might get from listening to Democratic presidential candidates debate each other over the past several months. One thing they seem to agree on is the false idea that Bush is cutting funding for veterans.
Oct 9, 2003:
Sharpton: As this president waved the flag, he cut the budget for veterans, which dishonored people that had given their lives to this country, while he sent people like you to war.
Dean: I’ve made it very clear that we need to support our troops . . . unlike President Bush who tried to cut — who successfully cut 164,000 veterans off their health-care benefits.
Jan 4, 2004:
Kucinich: Look what’s happened with this budget the administration has just submitted. They’re cutting funds for job programs, for veterans . . .
Jan 22, 2004 :
Kerry: And while we’re at it, this president is breaking faith with veterans all across the country. They’ve cut the VA budget by $1.8 billion.
Feb 15, 2004 :
Kerry: And most importantly, I think he’s cut the VA budget and not kept faith with veterans across this country. And one of the first definitions of patriotism is keeping faith with those who wore the uniform of our country.
And even the Democratic National Committee Web site proclaims, “Bush Cuts Funds for Veterans’ Health Care,” despite what the numbers show.
Veterans Groups Want More
While it’s false to say the veterans budget has been cut, and false to say that any veteran getting benefits has been cut off, it is true that funding is not growing as rapidly as demand for benefits, or as rapidly as veterans groups would like.
Veterans groups are unanimous in calling for more money than the administration or Congress have provided. Four groups — AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States — have joined to ask for $3.7 billion more than the administration is requesting for next year.
Even Bush’s own Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi — in a rare break with administration protocol — told a House committee Feb. 4 that had asked for more money than Bush was willing to seek from Congress. “I asked OMB for $1.2 billion more than I received,” he said, referring to the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Some Denied Benefits; A Cut Proposed
In January, 2003 the Veterans Administration announced that — because the increase in funds couldn’t meet the rising demand — it would start turning away many middle-income applicants applying for new medical benefits.
That led to accusations that Bush was denying benefits to veterans. ” We have 400,000 veterans in this country who have been denied access in a whole category to the VA,” Kerry declared during a debate Oct. 9, 2003. The VA’s estimates of the number who might be denied benefits is much lower, and in fact nobody can say with certainty how many middle-income veterans might have signed up for medical benefits if they had been allowed.
Meanwhile the VA continues to add hundreds of thousands of disabled and lower-income veterans to those already receiving benefits, and has kept paying benefits to all veterans who were already receiving them.
The middle-income veterans who currently aren’t being allowed to sign up are those generally with incomes above 80% of the mid-point for their locality. The means test cut-off for benefits ranges up to $40,000 a year in many cities. And any veteran with income less than $25,162 still qualifies no matter where they live. Those figures are for single veterans. The income cut-off is higher for those with a spouse or children.
Veterans groups have called for “mandatory funding” of medical benefits, which would automatically appropriate whatever funds are required to meet demand. Kerry has endorsed mandatory funding, which would allow middle-income veterans with no service-connected disability to resume signing up.
The administration also has proposed to make the VA’s prescription drug benefit less generous. Currently many veterans pay $7 for each one-month supply of medication. The administration proposes to increase that to $15, and require a $250 annual fee as well. Congress rejected a similar proposal last year. The proposal wouldn’t affect those — such as veterans with a disability rated at 50% or more — who currently aren’t required to make any co-payments.
And it should be noted that the administration is proposing to increase some benefits, including ending pharmacy co-payments for some very low-income veterans, and paying for emergency-room care for veterans in non-VA hospitals.
All this means Bush can fairly be accused of trying to hold down the rapid growth in spending for veterans benefits — particularly those sought by middle-income vets with no service-connected disability. But saying he cut the budget is contrary to fact.
(Note: FactCheck.org twice contacted the Kerry campaign asking how he justified his claim that the VA budget is being cut, but we’ve received no response.)
Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2005 “Table 5.2 — Budget Authority by Agency” (Washington, Government Printing Office) 3 Feb 2004.
US House of Representatives, Committee on Veterans Affairs, “ Statement of Anthony J. Principi , Secretary Of Veterans Affairs” 4 Feb 2004.
US House of Representqatives, Committee on Veterans Affairs, “ Statement of Peter S. Gaytan, Principal Deputy Director, Veterans Affairs And Rehabilitation Division, The American Legion” 4 Feb 2004.
US House of Representqatives, Committee on Veterans Affairs “ Statement Of Joseph A. Violante , National Legislative Director, The Disabled American Veterans” 4 Feb. 2004.
US House of Representatives, Committee on Veterans Affairs “ Statement of Vietnam Veterans of America , Presented by Richard F. Weidman, Director, Government Relations” 4 Feb 2004.
Press Release , Rep. Lane Evans (D IL)”Bush administration ’05 VA budget reflects misplaced priorities, places greater burden on some veterans” 2 Feb. 2004.
Suzanne Bamboa, “Principi Wanted $1.2B More for VA Budget,” Associated Press 4 Feb. 2004.