By Debbie Stevenson

Killeen Daily Herald

President Bush sent Congress a $2.77 trillion budget plan on Monday that includes a 2.2 percent military pay raise, boosts spending in the war against terror and offers an 8 percent increase for Veterans Affairs.

Veterans groups had been bracing for cutbacks or a proposal to freeze the budget of the Department of Veterans Affairs and vowed to fight Pentagon-backed requests to up health-care costs to the nations younger military retirees.

We anticipate another tough fight ahead as many in Congress seek to trim federal spending, including veterans programs, said James R. Mueller, commander-in-chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, in a news release to mark the launch of his groups counter budget proposal. But with the nation at war, we have a good case to make for full funding. In its 20th year, The Independent Budget will once again show the way.

The Independent Budget for FY 2007, now in its 20th year, also is co-produced with AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans and Paralyzed Veterans of America. The groups have offered it as a comprehensive budget and policy document by veterans for veterans to Congress each year and it has become an annual budget benchmark for what veterans say is adequate funding for the full range of veterans health-care and benefit programs.

At stake for a third straight year are proposals to increase costs and fees for Tricare, the militarys health-care provider, and the VAs budget, which Bush opted to freeze despite a $1.2 billion emergency bailout in January that was prompted by increased demand on the system. Congress has rejected the previous two attempts.

The proposals include a $250 annual enrollment fee and an increase in the drug copay from $8 to $15 for a 30-day supply of prescription drugs. Similar proposals are included in the Pentagons budget for career military retirees younger than 65.

These fees align veterans payments for care more closely with other public and private health care plans, the White House stated on its Web site.

Dr. David Chu, under defense secretary for personnel and readiness, said in January that military retirees younger than 65 who are in the workforce were the focus of Bushs proposals, claiming the programs ballooning cost comes from retirees under 65 who transfer their health care costs from the private sector to Tricare.

Bushs proposals were expected to save $795 million in 2007, the White House noted.

The Defense Departments health-care budget, which includes care provided in the war zone and the operation of military hospitals, clinics and Tricare elsewhere, has doubled from $19 billion in 2001 to $38 billion today, or 12 percent of the Pentagons budget. Left unchecked, Chu said the militarys health care bill would jump to $64 billion by 2015.

But while $39 billion was proposed for investments in health care for military personnel and their families, veterans advocates noted the health care would not be waiting for them once they retire if Bush has his way.

Bushs budget proposed to up military pay by 2.2 percent and housing allowances to 5.9 percent for active-duty ranks.

Noting the Armys massive transformation and war load, Brooks said it could not meet its goals without the support of Congress.

Bushs budget was accompanied by the Pentagons Report of the Quadrennial Defense Review and supplies funding for the changes recommended in the report.

The military on Monday was the recipient of the biggest spending increase in the 2007 budget plan, with a 6.9 percent rise to $439.3 billion for 2007. However, the figure does not include costs of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Administration officials said last week that Bush will ask Congress for an extra $120 billion to cover fighting for the rest of this year and the early part of 2007.

Contact Debbie Stevenson at

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