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WASHINGTON — Facing a $1 billion deficit in this year’s budget, Department of Veterans Affairs officials will raid operations and maintenance accounts to help pay for veterans’ basic medical care.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson promised lawmakers Tuesday that the budget shortfall will not affect veterans’ quality of care or access to doctors.

But he added that the department is already looking at a possible $1.6 billion shortfall in fiscal 2006 as well, and said the agency is expecting an even greater growth in the number of former troops using its services next year.

Both Senate and House committees met with Nicholson to address the budget problems, which first came to their attention last week. Nicholson said he first began addressing the problem in April, when officials realized that VA services were being used at nearly twice the rate forecasters had predicted.

House members, who passed their version of the VA Department’s 2006 budget in May, blasted the department for not informing them of the budget problems before June.

“If the VA had informed Congress about funding difficulties, I believe Congress could have added several hundred million to the Iraqi war supplemental,” said Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, ranking member of the House Appropriations’ Subcommittee on Military Quality of Life and Veterans Affairs.

House Appropriations Committee chairman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., said the decision not to ask for help earlier “borders on stupidity” and suggested that some officials within the department might have been trying to hide the problem.

Nicholson blamed the shortfall on outdated forecasting methods and the increased workload related to veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. But he promised lawmakers the financial problems would not impact the care veterans receive, calling that the agency’s top priority.

Over in the Senate, Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said lawmakers need truthful information from department officials to make their budget needs are met.

“Now, I sit here having recently learned that the information provided to me thus far has been disturbingly inaccurate,” he said. “Needless to say, Mr. Secretary, I am not pleased with that.”

The Senate is still debating its version of the department’s fiscal 2006 budget, and Craig said lawmakers there will take the deficit into account before it passes a final budget.

Meanwhile, House officials said they will conduct their own investigation into the size of the department’s budget deficit for next year and how to prevent similar shortfalls in the future.


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