WASHINGTON -- At least tens of thousands of veterans with noncritical medical issues could be denied care or could see their care delayed in coming years if the White House is serious about its proposed budget and President Bush's promise of cutting the deficit in half.
After an increase for next year, the Bush budget would turn current trends on their head. Even though the cost of providing medical care to veterans has been growing dramatically, White House budget documents assume a cutback in 2008 and further cuts thereafter.
Some say the White House is simply making up the proposed cuts to make its long-term deficit figures look better. More realistic numbers, however, would raise doubts as to whether Bush can keep his promise to wrestle the deficit under control by the time he leaves office.
"Either the administration is proposing gutting VA health care over the next five years or it is not serious about its own budget," said Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas, top Democrat on the panel overseeing the VA's budget. "If the proposals aren't serious, then that would undermine the administration's argument that they intend to reduce the deficit in half over the next several years."
In fact, the White House doesn't seem serious about the numbers. It says the long-term budget numbers don't represent actual administration policies. Similar cuts assumed in earlier budgets have been reversed.
"Instead, the president's subsequent budgets have increased funding for all of these programs," said White House budget office spokesman Scott Milburn. "The country can meet the goal of cutting the deficit in half and still invest in key programs for vulnerable Americans, and claims to the contrary aren't supported by the facts of recent budget history."
The veterans' medical care cuts would come as more people are trying to enter the system and as the number of people wounded in Iraq keeps rising. Even though Iraq war veterans represent only about 2 percent of the Veterans Administration's patient caseload, many are returning with grievous injuries requiring costly care.
The White House budget office, however, assumes that the veterans' medical services budget -- up 69 percent since Bush took office and which would rise by 11 percent next year under Bush's budget -- can absorb cuts for three years in a row after that.
The cuts are outlined in a 673-page computer printout that has not been officially released by the White House budget office. However, it found its way into the hands of the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank.
The administration insists it makes spending policies one year at a time and that the long-term veterans' budget figures are therefore subject to change.
"We don't make multiyear discretionary funding requests," said Veterans Administration spokesman Scott Hogenson, who declined to speculate on whether long-term cuts were realistic. "We look at our needs and assess our needs on a year-to-year basis."
The rapidly growing budget for veterans' medical services, funded for the current year at $24.5 billion, would leap to $27.7 billion in 2007 under Bush's budget. But the medical services budget faces a 3 percent cut in 2008 and would hover below $27 billion for the next four years, even as increasing numbers of veterans from the Iraq war claim their benefits and the costs of providing care to elderly World War II and Korean War veterans continue to rise.
"The only way you can do what they want to do in terms of actually cutting the budget is to throw a lot of veterans out who are already in the system and/or redefine who is a veteran," said Rick Weidman, director of government relations for the Vietnam Veterans of America.
Even with recent funding increases, cost-cutting moves have locked more than a quarter million veterans out of the system. Those excluded have no illnesses or injuries attributable to their military service and earn more than the average wage in their community.
In Bush's proposal to cut the deficit in half by the end of his term, he's assuming spending on domestic agency operating budgets can be frozen over the next few years.
"Each year the budget numbers go up," said Jeff Schrade, spokesman for Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Larry Craig, R-Idaho. "Speculation beyond 2007's budget is, at this point, just speculation."
But without the cuts, Bush's plan to halve the deficit would be far more difficult to achieve. For example, just freezing the budget for veterans' medical services below $27 billion understates the deficit for 2009 by perhaps $5 billion.