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Mr. Secretary, thank you for being here to discuss the Fiscal Year 2005 budget request for the Department of Veterans Affairs.



I particularly want to thank Secretary Principi for his willingness to request an additional $1.2 billion for the VA’s budget. I am disappointed that the Secretary’s request for veterans funding was not honored by the President.



I have a number of serious reservations about the President’s budget request for the VA and I am anxious to hear the Secretary discuss the Department’s plans to proceed with inadequate funding.



With a new generation of combat veterans returning home reliant upon VA health care, benefits and services, we have an obligation to ensure the VA can meet the needs of all of our veterans. I am concerned that this budget request falls short of our obligations in a number of areas.



The budget request for health care is totally inadequate. The request is front loaded with a huge and likely unjustified increase in medical collections from third parties. And, it includes approximately $400 million in new fees on veterans that the Congress is not likely to approve. The result of the Administration’s “fuzzy math” is a health care request that does not even keep up with medical inflation.



The request for major medical construction is $180 million. It is my understanding that the Administration also plans to transfer up to $400 million from the health care account to construction -- bringing the construction account close to $600 million for FY’05. This figure, if accurate, falls far short of the Administration’s CARES initiative plan to spend $5 billion on construction over the next five years.



With the CARES report expected to go to Secretary Principi this week, it is really disappointing to see a budget request far short of the CARES promises made to veterans and communities all across the country.



Throughout the CARES process, we’ve been asked to accept significant changes to VA health care delivery in exchange for future appropriations for new construction and service delivery. This budget request confirms the suspicions that many lawmakers have about the CARES process.

Mr. Chairman, thousands of military personnel from Washington state are now in Iraq. The Stryker Brigade from Fort Lewis is deployed to Iraq for the very first time as a unit. Thousands of guardsmen and women, and reservists from my state are on the verge of deployment to Iraq and the Middle East.



I look at this budget and I think of these new combat veterans with high hopes that each will come home to loved ones. And, I know these men and women will need the VA, just like so many other veterans now do, and I worry that we are not prepared for them. This budget request only increases my concerns for all of our veterans and I look forward to working with all of my colleagues to greatly improve the President’s request.



Mr. Secretary, again, I thank you for being here today. I know you are working hard for our veterans under difficult circumstances. We all appreciate your service.