Vets budget hike nixed

Sen. Patty Murray attemptedto add almost $2 billion for veterans' health care to a defense spending bill.

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An attempt by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray to secure almost $2 billion in additional health- care funding for veterans was rejected on Tuesday, along with claims that Veterans Affairs hospitals across the country are on the verge of crisis.

The proposal by Murray, D-Wash., was part of an $80.6 billion emergency spending bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A portion of the funds would have reached into Walla Walla, where officials at the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center say the annual patient load has increased 75 percent in the last seven years.

``We take care of as many veterans as we can. We stretch the available budget as far as we can,'' said Bruce Stewart, director of Walla Walla's VA hospital.

``Every additional dollar that we get is used to take care of more veterans than we can't take care of now.''According to information from Murray's office, the amendment was voted on and defeated twice, both times 54-46, with all but one Senate Republican casting opposing votes.

Rejection of the proposal leaves President Bush with a bill slightly less than the $82 billion he sought.

It is also less than the $81.4 billion approved by the House.

The Senate's Republican leaders hoped to have the bill approved by the end of the week and ready for Bush's signature by the end of the month. But the timing of the bill has become uncertain, with Senate leaders dealing with stacks of amendments and a possible battle over immigration restrictions.

Murray's proposal launched the first debate over the bill Tuesday.

In a speech before the Senate, she said VA hospitals are increasingly overcrowded and underfunded.

``There is a train wreck coming in veterans health care, and I'm offering an amendment to deal with this emergency now _ before it turns into a crisis,'' she said.

Republicans denied the VA had such serious problems. They noted the Bush administration said the additional funding wasn't needed and that it had enough money to cope with emergencies.

But in Walla Walla, Stewart said increasing costs of salaries and pharmaceuticals _ the two largest expenses at the hospital _ have grown faster than the budget.

In response, the VA hospital has instituted a waiting list for patients, prioritized by their veterans' status and the urgency of their conditions, Stewart said. The list had grown as of about two weeks ago to include 237 veterans, compared with 26 last September.

``It's driven by the available dollars,'' Stewart said. ``It's impacting, to some extent, facilities across the country.''Overall, he said the local hospital has seen an increase in the number of veterans it cares for from 8,172 veterans in 1997 to a projected 14,253 this year.

Although the annual budget to run the facility has increased each year, Stewart said it's not enough to accommodate the cost of medical inflation and staffing.

``The budget has gone up every year,'' he said. ``But it hasn't gone up to keep up with the work load.''Murray's amendment would have provided $525 million for mental health care for returning veterans, a large portion of which would have gone toward those with post traumatic stress disorder; $610 million for the newest veterans; and $40 million for each veterans' regional network, for opening new clinics and meeting local needs.

Stewart said he hopes to eventually eliminate the waiting list as has been done in the past. But it will be difficult without more funding.

``I think our network has more demand and fewer resources than some,'' he said. ``But I try not to get too involved with the politics of it. I take the decisions and do the best with what comes out on the other end.''The Associated Press contributed to this report.

THE WAITING LIST

A waiting list at Walla Walla's veterans hospital included 237 patients as of two weeks ago. The numbers are categorized by an anticipated wait time. Those figures are as follows:

APRIL 2005

Number of patients waiting less than 30 days: 83

30-60 days: 33

60-90 days: 31

90-120 days: 41

More than 120 days: 49

SEPTEMBER 2004

Less than 30 days: 2530-60 days: 1

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