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Costs of care for veterans: high and rising

A $1 billion shortfall in veterans' healthcare serves as a warning of the price to come, when troops return home.

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Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be much on the minds of their countrymen this Independence Day weekend. Marching in town parades. Lauded in speeches.

But the pride and the bunting are also a reminder that the price - and cost - of war go on many years after the fighting stops, that "to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan," as Abraham Lincoln put it, is as much an issue of national security today as are armored Humvees and trustworthy translators of Arabic.

The Senate got into a bipartisan snit over funding for veterans this week, Republicans and Democrats both raising alarms over a $1 billion shortfall for the Department of Veterans Affairs this fiscal year. On Wednesday, the Senate approved $1.5 billion in emergency funding for the VA. But the funding issue raises questions about the VA's ability to handle an increased workload as a result of the war.

With nearly 240,000 employees, the VA is larger than all other federal departments except the Pentagon. But even before the "war on terrorism" began, it had to scramble in dealing with the needs of 7.5 million enrolled vets, including a large number of homeless - 33 percent of homeless men in the US are veterans.

Now, thousands of Iraq war vets are being added to the rolls, including many who have been wounded and will require lifelong care.

"Clearly, VA is not ready for this," says Dan Smith, a retired US Army colonel and Vietnam veteran.

Since the US-led invasion of Iraq began, an average of 474 US service members a month have been wounded, injured, or become ill in the war zone. As of last week, the Defense Department put the total at 13,074.

But the total number of vets who still need help is much larger than that, and it's growing. As of February, VA officials reported, 85,857 of the 360,674 veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq who had separated from active duty - 24 percent - had sought healthcare from the VA. This included treatment for both physical injuries and mental health problems.

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