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WASHINGTON – With budget-cutting deadlines just a week away, nervous veterans advocates offered lawmakers their proposed changes to federal programs in an effort to save millions without severely impacting medical care or support services.

However, even while supporting more efficient spending, the veterans groups and lawmakers lobbied to have any found savings channeled back into the Department of Veterans Affairs, insisting that the needs of returning and retired war heroes still outweigh the funding available to the agency.

“Funding for major and minor construction has gone down, not up, in recent years, and funding for maintenance and equipment purchases are being cut,” said Joe Violante, national legislative director for the Disabled American Veterans. “We believe if Congress is able to find true savings, the first obligation must be to use them to help fund the needs of the VA health care system.”

Wednesday’s hearing was the latest effort by interest groups to protect their portion of the federal budget from looming cuts by the so-called supercommittee charged with finding $1.2 trillion in savings by Nov. 23.

That panel has been meeting for three months, but has offered few hints about their recommendations.

If Congress doesn’t adopt that plan – or if the bipartisan committee fails to agree on a plan – federal spending would be slashed by $1.2 trillion over the next decade, with few agencies exempt.

Defense spending would absorb at least half of those cuts, but officials from the Office of Budget and Management have not ruled whether veterans medical care and support programs will be protected.

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller said he hopes that won’t be an issue, and that VA funding will emerge unscathed from the sequester cuts or the supercommittee recommendations. But, he noted, that won’t help the agency escape from lawmakers’ larger push for efficiency in federal spending.

“Needless to say, the next 10 years will look vastly different than the last 10 in terms of spending,” he said. “No agency should ever be exempt from a constant effort to become more efficient in its operations, or root out waste, fraud and other questionable spending.”

Veterans groups offered a host of short-term funding fixes for the department, including changing the way state veterans homes are inspected and assigning fewer personnel to document-shredding work.

The hearing also focused on a new inspector general report released Monday that found up to 80 percent of VA performance and retention bonuses were not justified, due to a lack of documentation or a lack of need. Last month, House lawmakers passed legislation capping those bonuses, a move that would save about $5 million over the next four years.

The veterans groups also called for a review into the rapid hiring of VA bureaucrats in recent years, and the regular use of authorized overtime to compensate VA employees. The groups did not identify how much fixes in those areas could save, but said that they focus directly on the issues of efficiency.

VA officials defended those expenditures and noted that they have already begun the process of reigning in employee bonuses. They also highlighted changes in debt management and electronic payments that have saved millions in recent years, but acknowledged that more can be done.

Veterans groups at the hearing also lamented that lawmakers again failed to pass a new VA budget for 2012 before the start of the fiscal year, which started Oct. 1. The department is currently being funded through a short-term budget extension, a process that the groups have criticized for handcuffing the department’s long-term program programming goals.

That short-term extension is scheduled to run out this week, but Congress is expected to pass another extension through mid-December.

shanel@stripes.osd.milTwitter: @LeoShane

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