US war costs revealed

The US Congress has had to approve hurried legislation to give A$1.97 billion in “emergency” funds for veterans’ health care programs, stretched thin by combat and ageing veterans of past wars.

The effort came after the Bush administration acknowledged that it had significantly underestimated veterans’ health care funds needed for the fiscal year beginning on October 1st.

“The bottom line is there is a surge in demand in VA services across the board,” Veterans Affairs Secretary James Nicholson told a House of Representatives panel.

As recently as April, Mr Nicholson told the Senate that veterans’ health care programs had adequate funding.

But he told a House Appropriations subcommittee the Veterans Administration had assumed it would have to take care of 23,553 veterans from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan based on 2002 estimates, before the Iraq war started.

That number has now been revised to 103,000, more than four times higher, he said.

Some of those veterans are seeking routine health services.

“Others require more intensive care for both the physical and psychological consequences of combat,” Mr Nicholson said.

The updated figures underscored how the costs of the Iraq war, approaching A$393.18 billion, were rippling through other parts of a federal budget already under strict limits.

Veterans Affairs officials tried to minimise the impact of Iraq war casualties on funding, saying veterans from earlier wars were putting more pressure on the budget.

A $1.31 billion health-care funding shortage is being taken care of this year, Nicholson said, by tapping a reserve fund and deferring some maintenance and equipment acquisition costs, moves criticised by Democrats.

Meanwhile veterans groups have complained that funding is not keeping pace with rising medical costs, and that some veterans experience long waits for care.