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Trump's budget plan calls for another increase in VA spending

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 10, 2020

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s funding plan for the Department of Veterans Affairs includes a 13% increase for medical services, making it one of the only agencies to receive an overall boost in fiscal year 2021 under his plan.

If enacted by Congress, Trump’s budget would make the VA the second-largest federal agency in terms of discretionary budget and number of employees. While his spending plan increases the VA budget, it includes cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services, which currently has the second-largest discretionary budget behind the Department of Defense.

The president proposed $109.5 billion in discretionary funding for the VA, including $90 billion for medical care. Additionally, the VA has about $134 billion in mandatory funding to be spent on veterans’ benefits.

“The budget request will ensure veterans and their families experience health improvements and technological modernization advancements,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement. “That’s evidenced by the increase in budget funds we’re receiving – that not only increase health care services and benefits to veterans but also allow the VA to lead the way in forward-thinking innovation.”

Trump’s request, titled “A Budget for America’s Future,” totals $4.8 trillion and aims to boost defense and VA spending while slashing many other federal programs, including foreign aid, Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The budget plan is Trump’s fourth – and the fourth time he’s suggested an increase for the VA, continuing a pattern set by previous administrations. The agency’s budget has increased consistently since the beginning of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In 2009, it operated on a $90 billion budget; it surpassed $200 billion in fiscal 2019 for the first time.

The proposed $90 billion for VA medical services in fiscal 2021 includes an unspecified amount of money for the VA Mission Act, a new program to connect veterans with private-sector doctors. It’s been eight months since the program launched, and to the chagrin of some lawmakers, the agency doesn’t yet know how many appointments have been completed through the Mission Act or how much it’s costing taxpayers.

Trump’s budget also includes an increase to mental health services and a 32% boost to veteran suicide prevention programs. It proposes a 9% increase for women’s health care to expand access to gynecology, and it would give an additional $2.6 billion to an ongoing project to overhaul the VA’s electronic health record system.

The spending plan offers $137 million to implement the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019. Blue Water Navy veterans served aboard aircraft carriers, destroyers and other ships in the territorial seas of Vietnam and fought for years to prove they were exposed to the chemical herbicide Agent Orange. Because of the new law passed by Congress, they became eligible in January for VA disability compensation.

The money would allow the agency to hire more staff to handle about 70,000 claims it will receive from Blue Water Navy veterans in the next fiscal year. The VA has received 14,000 claims since Jan. 7 and issued $7.5 million in benefits to 218 veterans and family members, according to a news release.

Some VA programs would see cuts under Trump’s proposal. His administration is suggesting a cut they’ve tried before: rounding down veterans’ cost-of-living adjustments to all veterans who receive disability compensation.

The practice was standard until 2013, but efforts to reinstate it have been met with opposition by national veterans organizations. Reinstating the round-down policy in fiscal 2021 would save $41 million, according to estimates in Trump’s plan.

Another cost-saving proposal would cap student veterans’ Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits for flight training — a cut that Trump’s administration has been trying to impose for the last three years. Another proposal, to “standardize and enhance VA compensation and pension benefit programs,” is estimated to save $752 million in fiscal 2021.

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., voiced his support Monday for Trump’s proposal, which he acknowledged as a “quintupling of the VA’s bottom line” over the past 20 years.

“There is no question that the Department is in the midst of a critical transformation with respect to the delivery of health care and benefits to those who have served,” Roe said in a statement. “With this budget request, VA will be more prepared than ever before to ensure that those efforts bear fruit for generations of veterans to come.”

Wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling
 

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