House passes VA budget for 2011 (and 2012)

The House last night overwhelmingly passed (411 to 6) its veterans and military construction budget plan which would boost funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs to more than $120 billion for fiscal 2011, a jump of more than $11 billion from this year's levels.

Much of that increase is tied up medical care for veterans; Veterans Health Administration officials estimates they will treat more than 6.1 million patients in 2011, including more than 439,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. The VA also will pay out potentially millions more in Agent Orange claims next year, after expanding the list of illnesses linked to the Vietnam War chemical defoliant late last fall.

The House plan, which still must be approved by the Senate before it becomes law, also calls for a $410 million increase in mental health services from fiscal 2010 levels (including post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury care); a $696 million increase for homeless veterans assistance programs; a $377 million increase for health care system efficiencies; and a $9 million increase for medical and prosthetic research.

It also sets aside $50.6 billion in advance funding for fiscal 2012, to ensure VA medical programs aren't disrupted if Congress fails to adopt next year's budget before fiscal 2012 begins. In past years debate over the VA budget has drug several months past the start of each new fiscal year, leaving some programs short-staffed or without enough funding to continue.

White House officials said funding veterans care and benefits would be a major budget focus during this administration, and if approved the House plan would give the VA a nearly 30 percent increase in funds since President Barack Obama took office. In fiscal 2002, before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, the VA budget sat at just under $52 billion. Eight years later, it has more than doubled.



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