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VA is approaching a historically high $250.9 billion budget

By STEVE BEYNON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 7, 2020

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs is one step closer to securing its largest budget in history at more than $250 billion, continuing a trend of the government’s second-largest agency expanding rapidly in size to support a growing and aging veterans population.

House Appropriations subcommittee members on Monday forwarded a bill funding the VA at unprecedented levels to its full committee to send to the House floor for a vote. The bill gives more money to the VA than the $243.3 billion requested by President Donald Trump in the proposed 2021 budget from the White House.

The funding proposal boosts virtually all of the department’s major services and priorities of VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and Capitol Hill: suicide prevention, women’s health care and a $1.1 billion boost to implement the agency’s troubled health records system.

“The [military construction]/VA bill includes historic spending for women veterans, mental health, suicide prevention, medical research, and homeless prevention, while closely monitoring VA claims processing and system modernization,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., chairwoman of the subcommittee on military construction, veterans affairs, and related agencies.

VA is one of the only federal agencies not getting a budget cut and it is the only Cabinet department eyeing a double-digit budget boost — 14%, according to Trump’s proposed budget. Wasserman Shultz previously blasted it as a “fantasy budget,” suggesting the administration is using veteran policy to virtue signal.

“They are essentially using our veterans as pawns in a political game,” Wasserman Shultz said in March at a hearing on the matter.

The proposed budget is Trump’s fourth time requesting an increase for the VA, continuing a pattern set by previous administrations with little significant pushback from Congress. The agency’s budget has increased consistently since the beginning of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In 2001, the budget was $48 billion.

“Over the last decade, the VA’s budget has more than doubled – far outpacing the growth in patients and beneficiaries,” said Darin Selnick, a senior adviser for Concerned Veterans of America, a conservative veterans advocacy group. “Additionally, the VA has added nearly 50,000 employees in the past five years — making it larger than the active-duty United States Navy in terms of personnel.”

Selnick said money is “merely a talking point” for lawmakers and the VA needs to become more efficient, suggesting an audit “would be a good place to start.”

The cash flow into VA’s mammoth electronic health record modernization continues to expand after a series of delays. The overhaul of the VA’s system is designed to permit the VA to share Defense Department medical records of transitioning service members and ease the burden on veterans to prove service-connected injuries and illnesses. The new system was also created to allow the VA to share information easily with private-sector health care providers who treat veterans as more veterans are able to seek care outside the VA with federal funding.

The rollout of the upgraded records system was intended to debut March 28 at the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane, Wash. However, due to technical and training delays, the department had to postpone the launch. It’s unclear when the system will be unveiled. But it will be fully implemented by 2027, according to the VA.

The VA’s budget still has a long way to go before being finalized, including a compromise budget negotiated by House and Senate lawmakers and a full vote from each chamber.

Here are the highlights of what the House Appropriations subcommittee bill includes:

  • $10.3 billion for mental health care, an increase of $865 million from the 2020 enacted level and $40 million more than Trump’s budget request, including $313 million for suicide prevention outreach.

  • $661 million for gender-specific care for women, an increase of $76 million from the 2020 enacted level, and $35 million more than Trump’s budget request.

  • $1.9 billion for homeless assistance programs, an increase of $81 million from the 2020 enacted level, and $40 million more than Trump’s budget request.

  • $504 million for opioid abuse prevention, an increase of $102 million from the 2020 enacted level and equal to Trump’s budget request.

  • $300 million for rural health initiatives, equal to the 2020 enacted level and $30 million more than Trump’s budget request.

  • $84 million for whole health initiatives, an increase of $20 million from the 2020 enacted level, and $20 million more than Trump’s budget request.

  • $840 million for medical and prosthetic research, an increase of $40 million from the 2020 enacted level, and $53 million more than Trump’s budget request.

  • $2.6 billion to continue implementation of the VA Electronic Health Record System, an increase of $1.1 billion from the 2020 enacted level and equal to Trump’s budget request. The bill also continues Government Accountability Office oversight of the program to ensure the EHR system is implemented in a timely manner.

  • $1.8 billion for VA construction, an increase of $139 million from the 2020 enacted level and equal to Trump’s budget request.

  • $3.2 billion for operating expenses of the Veterans Benefits Administration, an increase of $62 million from the 2020 enacted level to ensure the prompt processing of disability claims.

Beynon.Steven@Stripes.com
Twitter: @StevenBeynon
 

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