VA officials urge Congress to approve coronavirus relief funding
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 19, 2021
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WASHINGTON – Department of Veterans Affairs officials urged Congress on Friday to approve President Joe Biden’s proposal for about $15 billion in coronavirus relief aid for the agency.
The money is part of Biden’s the American Rescue Plan, which totals $1.9 trillion and aims to help Americans affected by the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. Of the total, $15 billion is being proposed for veterans’ health care, staffing, suicide prevention, research and women’s health, as well as expanding telehealth, serving homeless veterans and improving medical facilities and more.
Richard Stone, the VA acting undersecretary for health, said the department needed more resources, in part, to treat veterans who have put off health care visits during the pandemic.
“We’re beginning to realize the very significant unmet needs as veterans come back to us for care,” he said.
He urged lawmakers to approve the measure Friday while testifying before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies.
The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs voted last week to advance Biden’s $15 billion proposal for the VA. The proposal was sent to the House Committee on the Budget. The vote was 17-12 along party lines, with no Republicans voting in favor of the measure.
Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., the ranking Republican on the committee, said the action to advance the bill was “reckless” and “irresponsible.”
“It’s the very first time our committee has met this Congress,” Bost said. “We’ve only been organized for five minutes. Many members are new, and we haven’t heard a single hearing or heard from a single witness. And yet, the Biden administration and a Democratic majority in Congress are rushing through a vote to spend $1.9 trillion.”
Rep. John Rutherford, R-Neb., also questioned the price tag Friday. He noted that the VA received $17 billion in the CARES Act, a coronavirus relief bill approved in March.
Stone said the VA has spent about $6.5 billion of the CARES funding and was expected to spend the rest before the end of the fiscal year in September.
“We’ve identified substantial additional requirements based on the length of the ongoing fight against the pandemic,” Stone said.
In addition to money for veterans’ delayed health care, the department needs funding to treat a greater number of veterans, Stone said. As veterans have been laid off during the past year and lost their employer-sponsored health insurance, some are relying on VA health care for the first time.
During the pandemic, VA facilities installed plastic barriers in some areas to reduce virus transmission. Stone said the department also sought funding to build permanent protective barriers to replace the temporary ones.
“We need to recognize that there may be another pandemic – there may be a variant – and we need to prepare ourselves,” he said.