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GOP's suggested budget cuts include veterans' benefits

A Republican budget deal that goes to the House floor this week calls for elimination of money for a veterans hospital in east-central Florida and requires veterans to pay more for their prescription drugs.

The package recommends a halt in new VA construction _ endangering the $154.7-million Brevard County hospital and two other planned VA hospitals in California and Hawaii.

Furthermore, veterans would face a $10 co-payment for prescription drugs, an increase from the $2 co-payment they currently are charged. The co-payment is charged each time veterans purchase a 30-day supply of medicine.

The possible spending reductions come in the form of recommendations as part of the balanced budget agreement announced last week by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Republican leader Bob Dole.

The negotiators ordered $8.2-billion in savings from the Department of Veterans Affairs by the end of 2002, according to documents distributed Monday on Capitol Hill. VA spending still would rise _ from about $36.9-billion in 1996 to nearly $42-billion by 2002 _ but not as quickly as planned.

But the suggested places to trim spending are just that _ suggestions. If the outline passes the House and Senate, as expected, by the end of a summer's negotiations the lawmakers could chose to ignore the recommendations and find other ways to meet their spending cuts.

For instance, the office of Rep. Dave Weldon, the Republican whose Florida district would include the new VA hospital, says a compromise is in the works to approve part of the money for a clinic that would be the first step toward building a hospital.

"There is definitely a need for medical care here in this district," said Weldon spokesman J. B. Cump.

Ultimately, a planned spinal cord unit at the James A. Haley VA Hospital in north Tampa could be on the cutting block because of the recommended halt in new construction. However, Rebecca Hyder, an aide to Palm Harbor Republican Rep. Michael Bilirakis, says construction money isn't even needed for another year. A relatively smaller project like the $40-million spinal cord unit would be easier to finance, she noted.

In any event, the threatened cuts highlight the fight between budget-cutters and the politically powerful veterans lobby. Congressional aides say the veterans advocates and their allies in Congress already whittled down the threatened cuts to their various programs.

For example, senators wanted to curb the benefits collected by disabled veterans whose injury wasn't "service connected" or suffered during military action. That idea didn't survive the House-Senate negotiation that Dole and Gingrich concluded last week. Neither did a Senate recommendation to close underused VA hospitals.

One cut that did survive was a recommendation to restrict the VA benefits going to mentally incompetent veterans who have large estates. That move is intended to force beneficiaries to spend part of their estate before relying on the government for help.