Thursday, August 5, 2010
House-Backed Bill Would Boost VA 's Spending on Agent Orange Claims
BYLINE: Eugene Mulero
The House on Wednesday gave strong support to a bill that would increase funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs, in part to help pay for new medical claims from thousands of Vietnam War soldiers found to have been sickened by the defoliant Agent Orange.
The increased money would be provided in a $141.1 billion spending measure that would fund military construction projects, the Veterans Affairs Department and related agencies in fiscal 2011.
The bill (HR 5822), sponsored by Chet Edwards, D-Texas, chairman of the Military Construction-VA Appropriations Subcommittee, would appropriate $6.5 billion more than the fiscal 2010 enacted level, matching President Obama's budget request.
The House passed the measure, as amended, 411-6.
Members of both parties expressed satisfaction with the bipartisan nature of the legislation. "In this time of war, we have continued our tradition of a bipartisan Military Construction and Veterans Affairs appropriations bill that has honored in a meaningful way the service and sacrifice of our servicemen and women, our veterans and their families," Edwards said.
The bill would provide the Veterans Affairs Department (VA) with $120.8 billion. That would include $56.8 billion in discretionary spending and $64 billion in mandatory spending. The bill would also provide $50.6 billion for VA medical accounts in advance appropriations for fiscal 2012 .
Senate appropriators reported their version (S 3615), which would provide similar funding levels, earlier this month. The spending measure is expected to reach the Senate floor after the August recess.
A portion of the increased discretionary funds would be used for claims by veterans exposed to Agent Orange. Last fall, the department extended coverage to Vietnam War veterans who had developed B-cell leukemia, Parkinson's disease or ischemic heart disease. The legislation means that such veterans do not have to prove an association between their illness and their service, according to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.
Shinseki also noted that the cost to provide care for the new cases of Agent Orange could be as much as $42.2 billion over the next decade.
Agent Orange, which was used to clear jungle areas where enemy troops might be hiding, contains a dioxin. In 1991 Congress gave the department authority to determine which diseases could be connected to Agent Orange.
Variety of Amendments
Before passing the measure, the House adopted several amendments.
The chamber adopted, 353-69, an amendment by Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., that would prevent the use of military construction funds for the purchase or renovation of any facility located in the continental United States to hold suspected terrorists or enemy combatants from Guantnamo Bay , Cuba.
The bill also included an amendment by Rush D. Holt, D-N.J., that would instruct the VA to set aside at least $20 million for suicide prevention outreach via direct advertising and the use of online social media. It was adopted by voice vote, with strong support from both parties.
Two amendments were offered that would have allocated funding for minor construction projects to other projects.
The first, offered by Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., was withdrawn after Edwards and members representing districts containing projects funded through the minor construction account expressed opposition.
But the sponsors of the other amendment, Republicans Scott Garrett and Leonard Lance and Democrat John Adler of New Jersey , insisted that their proposal be put to a vote. The amendment, which would have increased funding by $7 million for the state's construction account for veterans' cemeteries, was rejected, 128-296.
While members agreed with the goals of the amendments, they argued that the funding was essential for other projects. Expressing frustration, Garrett noted that appropriators had already provided $40 million more for minor construction projects than was requested by the administration. "There is a need for the cemeteries, not just in the state of New Jersey , but across the country as well," he said.
Overall, the spending bill includes $53.4 billion for the Veterans Benefits Administration's compensation, pension and burial benefits, which is $6 billion above the 2010 enacted level and matches the administration's request.
Additionally, $13.7 billion would be provided for military construction programs, along with $1.3 billion for emergency funds for construction projects in Afghanistan and $40 million for Arlington National Cemetery -- 4 percent more than the president's request -- to help the Army address alleged mismanagement.
Frances Symes contributed to this story.