WASHINGTON—Saying they're "very concerned" that the Department of Veterans Affairs isn't spending enough on mental health treatment, congressional members of both parties are pushing for more money in next year's VA budget.
While the budget and appropriations plan for fiscal 2008 is in the works and won't be settled for months, veterans committee members in the House of Representatives and the Senate say more needs to be done to reach out and treat soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Citing a McClatchy Newspapers report from February, the House Veterans' Affairs Committee said in a report that it "believes that the VA needs additional resources" for treating illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder. It pushed for an increase of nearly $150 million, or about 5 percent, over the administration's request of $3 billion. Republicans on the committee, in a separate statement, asked for a boost of $200 million over the administration's request.
The recommendation from the Senate Veterans' Committee was larger—an extra $500 million, or 18 percent, over the administration's request. That would mean mental health spending would jump nearly 25 percent from this year to next.
The McClatchy report also was cited in Senate hearings on the budget and was pointed to by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who said, "We have a long way to go."
"I'm not convinced we're prepared for the next 50 years of mental health problems so many of our veterans face from this awful war," Brown said in a Senate hearing.
VA leaders have insisted to Congress and others that all is well.
VA Press Secretary Matt Burns said the VA's 2008 budget request "will ensure returning combat veterans are receiving the latest, world-class mental health care" and that the department "will continue to spend wisely the resources we are provided."
With PTSD one of the most prevalent illnesses to emerge from the Iraq war, the VA is bracing for a heavy load of new cases even as it treats huge numbers of soldiers from Vietnam and earlier wars. The VA has increased mental health spending in the past three years and said it's well-equipped to handle the coming caseload.
Congressional leaders on veterans' issues, such as Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the Bush administration has "a history of not taking this issue seriously."
"As long as they continually deny the impact of this war, they are not going to ask for adequate inpatient and outpatient mental health spending," she said in an interview.
"I think they have not been honest with us and haven't given us a true assessment of how many people are coming home from this intense war—from multiple deployments, from tough on-the-ground combat—with serious mental health problems."
The budget process starts early in the year with the White House making its proposal to Congress, and then it winds through various committees as Congress develops its own proposal. The process for fiscal 2008 isn't yet done, but congressional action so far has worked to increase the VA's health budget over the president's request. Congress voted in May to increase the budget for veterans by $6.7 billion more than the 2007 level, exceeding the president's budget request by more than $3.5 billion. Members of the House and Senate appropriations committees are now working on the fiscal 2008 spending plan.
A report from a congressional conference committee, released in mid-May, called the president's VA health budget "inadequate" and specified that additional money should go toward PTSD and other mental health treatment.
"I think Congress is showing that veterans are a priority, and that the needs are a lot greater at VA than the administration has indicated," said Joseph Violante, who monitors the budget process for Disabled American Veterans.
McClatchy's February report, which ran in newspapers nationwide, detailed how the VA's mental health spending had stagnated for several years, leaving wide disparities in services and access across the country. Although the VA has made recent attempts to fill in gaps, the department didn't spend some money that Congress had given it for mental health programs.
The House Veterans' Committee report cited the story in pushing for more money. The House committee's Democratic members singled out McClatchy's finding that disparities in mental health spending left service "wildly inconsistent from state to state," and that rural and western states were hit particularly hard.
House Republicans criticized the administration for not properly spending the money it had been given. "We expect better performance," the Republican committee report said.