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Budget: Obama proposes big increase in VA funding

By HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 2, 2015

WASHINGTON — Facing a growing national crisis in veterans’ health care and a flood of new veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the president wants to give the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs an almost 8 percent boost to hire more VA doctors, give veterans more healthcare options, and increase money for construction.

The proposed 2016 budget includes roughly $70 billion in discretionary funding for the VA, for a total budget of about $168 billion — the rest being made up of mandatory benefit programs such as pensions and disability payments.

Although there is bipartisan support for increasing the department’s budget, battle lines were already being drawn Monday on a plan to siphon some money from the Veterans Choice Act — aimed at giving VA patients more flexibility to seek private care — to other sectors of the department.

The suggestion to divert some of the Veterans Choice Act money was in response to fewer than expected veterans expressing interest in seeking care outside the VA healthcare system, VA Assistant Secretary for Management and Chief Financial Officer Helen Tierney said.

“This transfer authority is essential to ensuring we have the right resources to meet veterans’ needs,” she said.

VA officials said they did not have numbers to back the assertion of low participation in the Veterans Choice Act programs, and one lawmaker who will play a key role in the VA budget discussion called the plan to put that program’s money into other areas a “nonstarter.”

“When a near-unanimous Congress worked with President Obama last year to create the choice program, we made a promise to veterans to give them more freedom in their health care decisions,” said House Committee on Veterans Affairs chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., in a statement. “I will not stand idly by while the president attempts to renege on that promise.”

Obama’s budget is also aimed at reducing the backlog of veterans’ disability compensation claims, which remain in the hundreds of thousands despite a long effort to expedite them, many of which have been pending for years. Included in the proposal is money to hire more staff to handle such claims. Other targets of the budget include ending veteran homelessness and increasing veteran access to jobs and housing.

The proposed budget calls for an advance appropriation request of $63.3 billion for 2017 medical care, which is a 5.5 percent increase over 2016.

“This funding will ensure continued investment in the five pillars the President has outlined for supporting the nation’s veterans: providing the resources and funding they deserve; ensuring high-quality and timely health care; getting veterans their earned benefits quickly and efficiently; ending veteran homelessness; and helping veterans and their families get good jobs, education, and access to affordable housing,” according to the proposal released by the White House.

The VA has been under fire since last spring, when whistleblowers revealed the existence of secret wait lists used to make it appear veterans were getting medical care more quickly than they were. In fact, veterans often languished for months or years while waiting for appointments and some died before they received care. The scandal, which centered around the Phoenix VA, uncovered a national crisis in veterans’ health care, cost former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki his job and led to calls from lawmakers and veterans group for an overhaul of the department.

Joe Violante, national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, whose group co-author a proposed VA budget called The Independent Budget with three other national veterans organizations, called Obama’s proposals “very encouraging.”

“The 2016 (budget) is very close to what the independent budget recommended,” he said, “and the (money for) medical services is slightly above.”

Lawmakers generally have been receptive to the VA getting more funding, though some have questioned whether there is planning and oversight at the department to make sure the additional money is spent appropriately and congressmen have increasingly clashed recently with VA officials over issues of transparency and the pace of reforms within the department.

Miller said he is committed to providing VA “the resources it needs” but warned that the budget would be tightly scrutinized and called Obama’s proposal to reallocate some money from the Veterans Choice Act to other areas of the VA a “non-starter.”

“For its part, VA has left hundreds of millions in health care funding unspent since 2010 as thousands of veterans languished on waiting lists and squandered more than $1 billion on a host of botched construction projects, acquisition failures and extravagant employee conferences,” Miller said. “That’s why we will ensure President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2016 VA budget request receives the scrutiny it is due over the coming weeks.”

druzin.heath@stripes.com
Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Washington D.C.
RICK VASQUEZ/STARS AND STRIPES

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