WASHINGTON — Congress still hasn’t approved a Veterans Affairs budget for 2010, even though the new fiscal year is already 3 weeks old. But on Thursday the president signed into law nearly half of the department’s 2011 budget, much to the delight of veterans groups.
The new law, which passed through Congress with near-unanimous support earlier this month, provides advance funding for basic VA medical programs in future fiscal years so they will remain fully functional even if Congress fails to pass a full budget on time.
It’s a frequent headache: In the last 23 years, a new VA budget has been approved before the start of the new fiscal year (Oct. 1) only three times.
Joe Violante, legislative director for the Disabled American Veterans, said the recurring funding snafu leads to questions about what programs can continue and when construction can begin on new clinics.
“It hasn’t shut the VA down, but it does mean that hiring freezes are put in place, staffing levels go down, veterans have to wait longer for doctor’s appointments,” he said.
Veterans groups made the advance funding issue their top legislative priority this year, and pressured President Barack Obama to keep his campaign promise to make the change to the VA’s budgeting process. Violante said his group has been pushing for the change for nearly a decade, but Obama’s emphasis on veterans issues helped pass the measure.
On Thursday, Obama called the measure “common sense reform” and “a victory for veterans organizations.”
“With this legislation we're fundamentally reforming how we fund health care for our veterans,” he said. “… It ensures that veterans' health care will no longer be held hostage to the annual budget battles in Washington.”
Under the new law, lawmakers will be permitted to approve funds for the VA’s medical accounts — things like physicians salaries, maintenance money, research funds — two years in advance.
Congress is currently considering a $133 billion VA budget for fiscal 2010, and the measure includes another $48 billion in advance funds for 2011. When Obama submits his 2011 budget proposal to lawmakers in February, it’ll likely include about $50 billion for fiscal 2012.
Retired Vice Adm. Norb Ryan, president of the Military Officers Association of America, called the funding move “the most important change for the VA in nearly a decade.”
“With the pressures of the wars, the issues with veterans health care are only getting tougher,” he said. “The VA health system is known for quality and safety but not for efficiency, and one of the main reasons are these fits and starts with the funding. So this will make a tremendous difference.”
Duane Miskulin, national commander of AMVETS, put it blunter: “We’re finally going to get our money on time.”
Congress is expected to vote on the fiscal 2010 VA budget in November.