War Veterans' Care to Cost $1.3 Trillion; New Entitlement an Unfunded Liability; Will Eclipse Social Security

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Byline: Shaun Waterman, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The expense of caring for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is an unfunded budget liability for U.S. taxpayers that in years to come will rival the cost of entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, lawmakers will be told Thursday.

The House Veterans' Affairs Committee will hear new estimates of the cost of lifetime medical care and benefits for returning troops disabled by their service - a total of more than $1.3 trillion.

It's somewhere between Medicare and Social Security in terms of its potential impact on the budget, said Rep. Bob Filner, California Democrat and committee chairman.

This is another entitlement that we have committed ourselves to that is going to break the bank unless we deal with these issues as soon as possible, he told reporters.

The committee will hear testimony from two economists, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes of Harvard University, and Mr. Filner will unveil a plan to establish a trust fund to build up cash reserves to help meet the future costs of veterans' care.

Ms. Bilmes said Wednesday that, with more than a half-million claims for disability benefits already filed by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan - and close to 600,000 being treated in Veterans Affairs medical facilities - the cost of lifetime care and benefits over the next 40 years would be between $589 billion and $934 billion, depending on the duration and the intensity of the wars.

The broad range of the figures, she said, reflects uncertainty about the numbers of troops who would be deployed in years to come. The Congressional Budget Office estimates, which she and Mr. Stiglitz used, provide for the deployment of 30,000 to 65,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan until 2020.

Based on the historic experience of Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War, where increasing numbers of veterans have sought treatment or benefits for service-related ailments as years pass, these costs are going to mount significantly over time, said Donald Overton, executive director of advocacy group Veterans of Modern Warfare. …