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Groups: Billions more needed to address veterans' health care, benefits issues

SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — The federal government will fall well short of meeting veterans’ health care and benefits needs in the coming years, several leading veterans service organizations said this week, and tens of billions of dollars in additional spending will be needed to adequately address the issue.

The 28th annual “Independent Budget” — recommendations “by veterans for veterans” for funding and policy changes for fiscal 2015 and beyond — was released Tuesday by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans and American Veterans. The report calls for $72.9 billion in additional health, benefits, claims processing and infrastructure spending for the fiscal 2015 budget, which sets aside money in advance for future fiscal years.

The Department of Veterans Affairs receives funding for health care in advance to help plan and manage care. Advance appropriations can be revised before the start of the fiscal year in question, although that doesn’t always happen.

The groups called on Congress to add the rest of the VA funding to the advance appropriations process.

“The VA health-care system has been shielded from the severe negative consequences of political gridlock that ultimately led to a partial government shutdown last fall,” said Bill Lawson, national president of Paralyzed Veterans of America, in a statement. “It is time that the rest of the VA is afforded the same protection.”

The authors of the plan say one of the greatest concerns is the severely underfunded VA construction account, which upgrades rapidly aging facilities, making them safe for the millions of sick, wounded and injured veterans of all generations. From fiscal 2002 through fiscal 2014, the group’s annual budget proposals have recommended a total of $23.5 billion for VA construction, however, less than $13.5 billion has been appropriated by the federal government during that period.

“World-class health care requires first-class facilities, but through 13 years of war, VA construction accounts have only received 57 percent of what’s required, and we project VA will need to invest $31 billion over the next decade to close its major and minor construction gaps,” VFW National Commander William Thien said in the statement. The Independent Budget recommendations for revisions in actual spending for fiscal 2015 include:

  • $2.3 billion more for health care for fiscal 2015 than the $58.8 billion the administration recommended in advance.
  • $2.7 billion more than the $3.9 billion appropriated for all construction programs in fiscal 2015.
  • $25 million more than the $611 million appropriated for medical and prosthetics research in fiscal 2015.

The budget recommendations also include $62.4 billion in advance appropriation for health care for fiscal year 2016.

The budget’s authors expressed concern with the level of investment in the VA’s information technology infrastructure and the government breakdown in the appropriations process.

Once considered a sacred cow, veterans spending has been a flashpoint in recent months as federal deficits from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and skyrocketing benefit costs have compelled lawmakers to consider the issue. A bipartisan budget deal in December cut military pensions, causing an uproar that led lawmakers to reconsider; however, they indicated the current rate of growth for military pay and benefits is unsustainable.

Last month, Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., introduced sweeping veterans legislation covering changes to the GI Bill, survivor benefits, advanced appropriations for the VA and fertility treatments for wounded veterans. The response was largely positive and backed by 20 veterans’ service organizations, including Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and Disabled American Veterans.

For more information, visit www.independentbudget.org.

burke.matt@stripes.com

 

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