VA faces $1 billion shortfall this year

Local officials say the national budget problem will mean belt tightening here.

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WASHINGTON -- _ The Department of Veterans Affairs told Congress that its health care-costs grew faster than expected and left a $1 billion hole in its budget this year, lawmakers said Thursday.

House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Steve Buyer, R-Ind., said the department can meet this year's health-care costs by drawing on spare funds and money from other operations, including building construction.

An official at Walla Walla's veterans hospital, the Jonathan M.

Wainwright Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said this morning that some belt tightening will have to take place to bring in a balanced budget at the end of the fiscal year in October.

Roxanne Sizemore, facilities planner for the medical center, said the hospital has not hired for new positions and is looking at areas where money can be saved.

Right now it appears the facility is ``maybe a couple hundred thousand off,'' but shortages throughout the year are not unusual, Sizemore said.

``Every year we have to look very closely at spending,'' she said. ``We have had to do that again this year.''Bruce Stewart, director of the Wainwright facility, said in April that the budget has been stretched as much as possible. But with increasing salaries, pharmaceuticals and patient load, the budget has not kept up.

The federal shortage came to light during a routine budget review. Lawmakers said they are still gathering details, but it appears health care for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and poor budget forecasting contributed to the problem.

Several Democrats urged the Bush administration to push immediately for an emergency spending bill to fill this year's $1 billion deficit and prevent the VA from raiding other operations to pay for health care.

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said he didn't yet see the need for emergency action but planned to call VA officials to a hearing next week to pin down more precise spending figures.

``We're going to pound them like hell 'til we get them, then we'll make some judgments,'' he said.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, had urged lawmakers to give the VA an extra $2 billion this spring while they assembled an $82 billion emergency spending bill on war and homeland security, but the VA said it didn't need any more money.

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