WASHINGTON -- The Department of Veterans Affairs would receive a 4 percent funding increase for its fiscal 2014 discretionary budget and a $2.5 billion infusion to battle the growing claims backlog under White House budget plans to be announced next week.
The funding boost comes as most government departments face steep cuts as the president and lawmakers search for ways to rein in the national debt. It still must be approved by Congress before it becomes law.
But White House and VA officials said the extra money for veterans programs shows President Barack Obama’s commitment to help servicemembers returning from combat with their transition to civilian life, and to make sure the lifelong war wounds aren’t forgotten.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said the budget emphasizes “the president’s commitment to our veterans and their families” but also acknowledged that more money doesn’t promise immediate results for veterans impatient with the VA bureaucracy.
“At the end of the day, it’s not the inputs or investments, but the outputs: questions being answered, tax credits being utilized, jobs being created,” he said. “That’s going to prove to people whether the system is working.”
The VA budget request for the fiscal year starting in October will ask for $63.5 billion for department discretionary spending--,programs apart from the mandatory benefits and health care the agency provides.
That’s slightly lower than the $64 billion in discretionary funds the White House requested for fiscal 2013, but about $2.4 billion more than what the department received after lengthy congressional budget fights over the last six months. It’s also 25 percent more than what the department spent annually on those programs before Obama took office in 2009.
Officials said the top priorities in the budget will be veterans employment initiatives, mental health care and reducing the veterans compensation claims backlog, a rapidly mounting problem for the department in recent years.
In a White House meeting with reporters Friday, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said the department is still confident it will eliminate the backlog -- cases that take more than 125 days to process – within two years.
“Any veteran waiting for a claims decision is waiting too long,” he said. “There’s no one more impatient than I am.”
Currently, the backlog hovers around 600,000 cases, up dramatically from around 80,000 just four years ago. The average wait for completion of a claim is almost nine months.
Veterans groups have questioned whether 2015 is a realistic goal, and Shinseki avoided questions on exactly when critics will see progress in bringing those numbers down.
McDonough acknowledged the skepticism.
“We’re not asking anyone to take our word for it,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is, by having a budget that reflects those increased investments (in veterans programs), lay down in the clearest way we can a statement of priorities.”
The 2014 budget proposal includes $155 million for new paperless claims processing systems, which Shinseki has said will help clear the backlog, and another $136 million to convert existing paper records into digital formats. The Veterans Benefits Administration, which handles the claims, will see its budget share grow almost 14 percent from this year’s amount.
It also would make permanent tax credits for employers who hire veterans. Lawmakers approved those credits -- which range from $5,600 for hiring unemployed veterans to $9,600 for hiring jobless disabled veterans -- in late 2011.
And the budget plan provides $7 billion for improving the department’s mental health care, including efforts to lower wait times for treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and military sexual trauma counseling.
The department has scrambled in recent months to hire more mental health experts to reduce the 50-day average wait for care at VA facilities and the estimated 22 suicides each day among veterans.
Obama’s full federal budget plan is scheduled to be unveiled on April 10.