WASHINGTON - At least tens of thousands of veterans with non-critical medical issues could suffer delayed or even denied care in coming years to enable President Bush to meet his promise of cutting the deficit in half - if the White House is serious about its proposed budget.
After an increase for next year, the Bush budget would turn current trends on their head. Even though the cost of providing medical care to veterans has been growing by leaps and bounds, White House budget documents assume a cutback in 2008 and further cuts thereafter.
It seems to some that the White House is making the figures up to make its long-term deficit numbers look better. More realistic numbers, however, would raise doubts as to whether Bush can keep his promise to wrestle the deficit under control by the time he leaves office.
"Either the administration is proposing gutting VA health care over the next five years or it is not serious about its own budget," said U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards of Waco, the top Democrat on the panel overseeing the VA's budget. "If the proposals aren't serious, then that would undermine the administration's argument that they intend to reduce the deficit in half over the next several years."
In fact, the White House says the long-term budget numbers don't represent actual administration policies. Similar cuts assumed in earlier budgets have been reversed.
"Instead, the president's subsequent budgets have increased funding for all of these programs," said White House budget office spokes-man Scott Milburn.
"The country can meet the goal of cutting the deficit in half and still invest in key programs for vulnerable Americans, and claims to the contrary aren't supported by the facts of recent budget history."
The veterans' medical-care cuts would come even though more and more people are trying to enter the system and the number of people wounded in Iraq keeps rising. Iraq war veterans represent only about2 percent of the Veterans Administration's patient caseload, but many are returning from battle with grievous injuries requiring costly care.
The White House budget office, however, assumes that the veterans' medical services budget - which is up 69 percent since Bush took office and which would rise by 11 percent next year under Bush's budget - can absorb cuts for three years in a row after that.
The cuts are outlined in a 673-page computer printout that has not been officially released by the White House budget office. However, it found its way into the hands of the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank.
The administration insists it makes spending policies one year at a time and that the long-term veterans' budget figures are therefore subject to change.