Vets to Nicholson: Where is that money?

When secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson visited the Minneapolis VA hospital earlier this week, a 72-year-old vet had only one issue he wanted to discuss with the Bush-appointee: "Why is the funds taken away from the VA? We don't have enough nurses, we don't have enough people to help the veterans when they come in here for surgery," asked Virgil Kinnumen, according to a story by MPR. "Why can't we get funds to help the VA hospitals, instead of spending it on some other goofy things?"

Nicholson's response to the man, whose recent surgery incision was visible on his chest, was that he's heard mainly positive responses from the staff. "Actually, it gets a lot of funding," Nicholson said. "VA funding increased 57 percent in the last four years. The Congress and president have been very supportive of the VA."

"Where is that money?" Kinnumen asked. "I don't see it. We're always behind on everything here."

Despite Nicholson's assurances that the VA gets "lots of funding," the lack of VA funding has caused a heated debate in Congress this year, and critics in the House and Senate charge that Nicholson's short-sidedness and inexperience are a few of the reasons the VA has become so strapped. In fact, in June, after only two months earlier assuring Congress that the VA did not need emergency funding, Nicholson confirmed the VA needed another $300 million to fund Fiscal Year 2005.

Last month, the Democratic Staff of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs released a response to the Fiscal Year 06 budget (which began in October), noting that again the appropriated budget falls $2.2 billion short of the Democratic recommendation. Supplemental emergency funding, which can only be requested by the Bush administration, was added in the amount of $1.225 million, but the House Committee staff says it still falls $475 million short of the original recommendation.

In April, the Minneapolis VA hospital became a designated polytrauma unit, one of only four in the country designed to treat soldiers sustaining multiple and life-altering injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan. As noted in a November City Pages story on the Minneapolis VA and one soldier's battle to come back from a brian injury suffered in Iraq, the cost to treat these severely injured patients can range anywhere from $80,000 to more than $500,000.

In the past year, the Minneapolis VA has had to increase its staff by more than 200. And according to MPR, the Minneapolis VA's budget alone has increased $90 million, to $390 million in Fiscal Year 05. But in April, like the crisis facing the rest of the department of Veterans Affairs, the Minneapolis VA was hit with a $7 million budget shortfall of its own. Though the number of soldiers with serious injuries is increasing and baby boomers are aging and seeking more VA assistance, the VA healthcare Fiscal Year 06 budget only increased by $600 million, to $29.9 billion in appropriated dollars.