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VA one of few agencies Trump recommends for budget increase

The Department of Veterans Affairs seal on a gate at the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

STARS AND STRIPES

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 16, 2017

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday proposed a 6 percent boost in funding in 2018 for the Department of Veterans Affairs – one of the few significant increases in a budget blueprint that includes cuts to most federal agencies.

Trump’s budget outline requests $78.9 billion in discretionary funding for the VA, $4.4 billion more than was approved in 2017. But the proposal falls short of what veterans organizations requested in their annual set of published recommendations compiled by Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars and paralyzed Veterans of America.

The recommendations, known as the Independent Budget, call for an approximately 10 percent increase in discretionary spending, for a total of $88.9 billion.

“But it is encouraging, and we’re hopeful,” said Joy Ilem, legislative director for Disabled American Veterans. “We know there’s a lot of issues that VA needs to address, they have a lot of pressure on them to turn things around and we’re anxious to look at the full budget and how it breaks down.”

Besides the VA, Trump’s budget would increase funds for the departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Other federal agencies would see budget reductions to offset the increases. Funding to 19 smaller agencies and programs would be cut altogether. That list includes the Interagency Council on Homelessness, which provides strategies for ending veteran homelessness.

Trump promised a funding increase for the VA during his first address to Congress on Feb. 28. The budget states the 6 percent boost “ensures the nation’s veterans receive high-quality health care and timely access to benefits and services.”

Trump also proposed dedicating $3.5 billion to the Veterans Choice Program, which allows VA patients to seek treatment in the private sector when they can’t get an appointment at the VA or live too far from a VA facility.

The program, created as a temporary measure in 2014, is set to expire in August. VA Secretary David Shulkin has repeatedly called on Congress to extend the program and give him time to create a modified version of it that he said will include “less red tape.”

“Without action, this critical program will expire in August 2017, which would result in veterans having fewer choices of where to receive care,” the budget states.

Researchers wrote in the Independent Budget that they were concerned there isn’t enough funding dedicated to pay for veterans’ care in the private sector. The choice program was funded with $10 billion in 2014, and it’s estimated approximately $990 million will remain after August.

The report warns of a “potential funding crisis” in 2018 if the VA “does not address the new community care demand it has fostered without necessary resources.”

The White House proposal would boost the amount dedicated to medical care in 2018 by $4.6 billion, which would allow the VA to offer “a broad range of primary care, specialized care and related medical and social support services.” It gave no specifics about how the new funds would be used.

The budget also mentions supporting programs for homeless and at-risk veterans, providing education benefits and transition services, investing in information technology and transforming the process veterans use to claim disability and pension compensation.

“Overall, funding has to match the increased demand VA has been seeing over the last couple of years,” Ilem said. “The line items we want to see are related to veteran-focused research, construction and the Veterans Benefits Administration. We need an overall package to improve delivery of services, whether it’s benefits or health care. I think a lot of the access issues that have occurred really came from VA not having the funds.”

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said earlier this year that he wasn’t certain the VA needed a funding increase, but instead needed to spend its budget more wisely and invest in staff that works directly with veterans.

While the 2017 budget totaled nearly $180 billion when mandated funding was added in, the budget in 2012 was slightly more than $130 billion.

“I think we can work with the budget we have,” Roe said in January at his first hearing as chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

The White House will release a full budget later this year.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

 

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