WASHINGTON — The discretionary budget for the embattled Department of Veterans Affairs would rise by about 5 percent under President Barack Obama’s proposed 2017 budget, which includes spending increases to improve the much-criticized claim appeals process and using some funds aimed at giving veterans access to outside care to pay for VA staffing and infrastructure.
The proposed $182 billion budget includes $102.5 billion in advance appropriations for the VA’s mandatory benefit programs. The rest of the proposal is $75.2 billion, not including $3.6 billion in medical care collections.
The VA is the second-largest department in the federal government, serving more than 9 million veterans through benefits and a nationwide medical system. The 2017 budget estimates that about 6.3 million vets will receive health care in the coming fiscal year, and that about 9.2 million will be enrolled in the VA health care system.
“The 2017 budget will allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to operate the largest integrated health care system in the country,” said Edward Murray, the VA’s interim chief financial officer, speaking to reporters in a telephone conference Tuesday afternoon.
The budget must be approved by Congress, and the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs will hold its first hearing on the proposal Wednesday. The proposal is likely to face a tough evaluation by lawmakers who have been critical of the scandal-plagued agency.
“This budget request is almost double the VA budget in 2009, and since then, the VA has been plagued by scandals and mismanagement and has consistently proven its inability to use its existing resources,” Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs said in a statement. Isakson said that while the proposed budget funded important programs, “the solution to fixing a broken agency is not simply giving it more money.”
House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said he would be studying the budget closely to make sure it addresses veterans' interests.
“I will fight to ensure VA has the resources it needs, but given the complete lack of accountability for the department’s string of past financial failures, this budget request will receive every bit of the scrutiny it is due,”
Murray said the VA has increased the budget on the VA’s investigation arm “fairly considerably,” adding $23.3 million to the Office of Inspector General over the 2016 actual budget.
“This will allow increased oversight of VA programs. This will allow an additional 100 staff members in the Office of the Inspector General both at current and new locations nationwide to improve accountability throughout the department.”
Included in the budget is an additional $46.2 million to improve the system for veterans to appeal denials of claims. As the VA has reduced its massive backlog of initial claims, the backlog in appeals has risen, leaving many veterans waiting an average of five years for a final decision.
The proposed budget increase would include an additional 242 full-time employees to deal with appeals.
“Unfortunately, under current law today, the VA appeals framework is not serving the needs of our veterans,” according to a White House press release. “The current process – which has built up over the past 80 years – is complex, ineffective, and opaque.”
Projecting a continued increase in veterans turning to the VA for care, the 2017 budget includes spending $969 million out of the Veterans Choice Act for the creation of new medical staff positions. Murray said the budget calls for the creation of 16,000 new positions, close to 11,000 funded through the Choice Act — a program aimed at giving veterans a chance to seek outside medical help when the VA fails to provide timely care, but which has a section of funding for the hiring of medical professionals.
The VA has been mired in scandal for nearly two years after the revelation of patients in Phoenix languishing on secret wait lists for years. Some died before receiving treatment.
The scandal spread across the country, showing a toxic leadership culture at the VA, eventually costing then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki his job.
VA officials continue to face criticism from Congress and veterans, most recently for a series of appeals board decisions that overturned proposed punishments for department executives accused of wrongdoing.
The decisions have led Miller to call for an overhaul of the entire federal employee disciplinary system.
Stars and Stripes reporter Dianna Cahn contributed to this article.