House boosts health budgets for DOD, VA

The House Appropriations Committee set aside funding to expedite soldiers' disabilities claims.

The House Appropriations Committee boosted the health care budget for the Defense Department by $1.7 billion from the Bush administration’s request to $2.8 billion, and budgeted $415 million for the Department of Veterans Affairs in its version of the 2007 war supplemental funding bill. The bill includes language and funding to ensure that combat veterans involved in disability claims do not languish in limbo, an experience soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center explained to congressional committees earlier this month. The process for evaluating the eligibility for disabilities benefits has been strained by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the committee report on the bill states. That has led to failures to complete disability reviews in a timely manner, it states. Poor management, shortages in caseworkers and specialists to help identify depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and inadequate medical hold facilities have created obstacles for soldiers as they convalesce, the report adds. To rectify these problems, the committee added $30 million to the Defense Department budget to boost recruitment and training for administrative and casework employees and directed that these funds be allocated to military treatment facilities such as Walter Reed with significant medical hold populations and large backlogs of patients who need to be evaluated for disability benefits. The committee report estimated that by the end of fiscal 2007, the VA will have treated more than 209,000 veterans who have served in either Afghanistan or Iraq. The committee budgeted $250 million to ensure the department has enough personnel to support this growing caseload and to maintain a high level of services for veterans of other wars. To ensure that the VA does not delay processing of current combat veterans' claims, the committee bill added $62 million to the Veterans Benefits Administration’s budget, which will permit VBA to add 757 full-time personnel to its workforce of 6,425 to work on compensation claims. The war supplemental bill provides $1.25 million to VBA to digitize combat unit records to help research PTSD events. The committee also added $35 million to the VA budget for information system development upgrades to screen patients for traumatic brain injury and PTSD. The committee bill increased or added funding for a number of Walter Reed programs and projects, including more than tripling supplemental funding for the hospital’s amputee center to $29.4 million from the administration’s request of $7.4 million. The committee added $2 million to the Walter Reed budget for a caregivers support program and $20 million to fix Building 18, where soldiers had to live in substandard conditions, according to congressional testimony and press reports. The committee passed the 2007 war supplemental bill March 16, but details of the bill only became available late March 20, when a copy of the bill and report with handwritten changes was posted on the House Rules Committee Web site. The bill still needs to be approved by the full House and aligned with a similar Senate bill before its provisions become law.