Congress slashes Defense health supplemental funding request

Editor's Note: The article below was based on the incorrect assumption that the funding for military health care included in the omnibus spending measure represented the full amount the Military Health System would receive for fiscal 2008. It is in fact bridge funding to meet immediate requirements until Congress can address a full supplemental funding request next spring. Government Executive has published a new story clarifying these points.

Congress cut $561.7 million out of the Defense Department's $1.14 billion request in supplemental funding for health care, which is attached to the current fiscal 2008 omnibus appropriation bill, a move sharply decried by former top military health officials and veterans organizations.

Jason Forrester, policy director for Veterans for America, said the cut in health funds amounts to an "effort to balance the budget on the backs of the troops. This is a national disgrace." Dr. Harold Koenig, who served as the Navy surgeon general from 1995 to 1998, called the move "sick, considering we ask so much of our troops."

The Military Health System said its 2008 supplemental funding request covered care for combat wounded soldiers, including operation of the Aeromedical Evacuation System, treatment of burn injuries and establishing wounded warrior transition teams at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

The MHS request also covered costs to expand the number of beds at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, the first stop for troops evacuated from Afghanistan and Iraq, and for amputee centers at Walter Reed, Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and the San Diego Naval Medical Center.

The Defense request for health care for mobilized National Guard and Reserve forces of $569.6 million is almost equal to the total Defense health supplemental funding approved by Congress in the consolidated 2008 appropriations bill sent to President Bush.

MHS has not determined how to allocate what amounts to a 50 per cent cut in requested funds across a number of budget lines, a spokesman said. But budget documents indicated that absorbing the shortfall would sharply impact service members and their families. The MHS supplemental funding request described funding for mobilized Reserves and Guard personnel and their families as "a must-pay bill, and the cost will incur without funding."

A shortfall in funding in the Reserve health care account would compromise health care for other beneficiaries and "funding would have to be shifted from other priorities, including curtailment of treatment in military treatment facilities for non-active duty personnel," MHS said in its supplemental budget request.

Defense would have to funnel available funds to the care of active duty and mobilized Reserve forces from budget lines allocated to care for retirees and their family members, MHS said in its 2008 supplemental budget documents. Congress provided no details on why it imposed its cuts on MHS, and spokespersons from the House and Senate appropriations committees did not return calls requesting comment.

Forrester said the cuts probably reflect the fact that Congress reduced the Defense 2008 supplemental budget request from $196.4 billion to $70 billion, with the $126.4 billion shortfall spread throughout the department. But, he said, "It makes no sense to take the bean-counter approach to health care for troops, who are the most valuable asset."

MHS has not determined how to allocate what amounts to a 50 percent cut across a number of budget lines, a spokesman said. But documents indicated that absorbing this shortfall would be difficult and would sharply affect service members, retirees and families.

In addition, MHS asked for $9.1 million in extra funds to support electronic patient-tracking systems to monitor the movement of wounded from the battlefield to stateside hospitals, and $5.3 million to support trauma training fro combat medics.

If it did not get its tracking funds, MHS said patients could arrive at military hospitals not properly equipped to care for them, while lack of training funds could diminish the proficiency of combat medical personnel, MHS said. Internal Army Medical Department reports earlier this year portrayed a combat medicine system struggling with inadequate and poor training.

Rick Jones, legislative director of the National Association for Uniformed Services, said his organization will continue to push for restoration of the Defense health supplemental funds on the Hill. Steve Robertson, legislative director for the American Legion concurred, saying the message his organization has delivered to the Congress over the past year is quite simple: "Don't you know there is a war going on?"

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