Veterans groups ask Congress to double VA's construction budget

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 1, 2021

WASHINGTON — Several national veterans’ organizations are urging Congress to give the Department of Veterans Affairs nearly $4 billion in the next federal budget for overdue construction on medical facilities, doubling its current budget for those projects.

The VA has about $65 billion in delayed construction projects, $7 billion of which aim to fix safety issues, said Patrick Murray, legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The organizations have long fought for a bigger construction budget but see a greater need for urgency after an incident at the West Haven VA Medical Center in Connecticut last year, when a VA employee and a private contractor were killed while repairing the building’s decades-old steam system. A rapid release of hot water vapor led to an explosion.

The accident prompted demands for upgrades to the West Haven campus. Like many other VA facilities, it was built more than 50 years ago.

“Something we bring up every year is that with certain parts of the infrastructure budget, if we let them get to critical mass, they’ll reach a failure point and in extreme cases lead to unfortunate deaths, like what happened,” Murray said. “That’s one case that more repair work should’ve been done earlier, years ago.”

The VFW, along with Disabled American Veterans and Paralyzed Veterans of America, compiled a report detailing its VA budget and policy recommendations and sent it to Congress and President Joe Biden’s administration. on Monday. The three groups have shared the annual reports for more than 30 years.

Biden’s budget recommendations – including a request for the VA – are expected to be released this month.

In their report this year, the groups recommended $102.2 billion in discretionary spending for the department for fiscal 2022 – an increase of $7.8 billion from the current fiscal year. Construction funding accounts for most of the proposed increase, said Peter Dickinson, senior executive adviser with DAV.

“We’re calling once again on the VA, the administration and Congress to provide realistic levels of funding to maintain VA’s health care infrastructure,” Dickinson said. “Budgets for short-term, major and minor construction have been inadequate year after year. We recommend doubling that for next year.”

The groups are requesting $1 billion in the 2022 budget to fix some of the backlogged safety issues at VA hospitals, clinics and long-term care facilities. They are also asking that Congress create 175 new VA positions for project-management staff to oversee the increase in construction work. The positions come in at $23 million in 2022, the groups estimated. They also want $40 million to be allotted for the VA to retrofit areas for women’s health care, as the number of female veterans increases.

The VA health care system includes more than 5,600 buildings on 34,000 acres, much of which was built before 1970. For more than 20 years, construction funding has lagged behind “even the most conservative estimates of the actual needs,” the groups wrote in their report.

In 2018, Congress approved legislation that launched a nationwide review of VA facilities to determine which ones to close and where to invest. A nine-member commission is supposed to form in 2022 and 2023 to review VA facilities, consult with veterans’ organizations and make realignment recommendations to the president.

The groups argued Monday for more timely action.

“One of the ways the presidential administrations and Congress have deferred funding VA infrastructure is by saying, ‘First, we need a long-term plan,’” Dickinson said. “We understand the political process. We understand another $1 billion is a hard thing to come by. We know we have a task ahead of us, but we’re going to move forward on it.”

The groups are also asking Congress to consider more funding for VA health care to account for an increase in demand caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Over the past year, many veterans have delayed health care, and a significant number of patients could seek VA treatment as more vaccines are administered, the groups said.

Unemployment caused by the pandemic could also lead more veterans to seek VA benefits and health care, they said.

The groups’ recommendations also include a list of priorities for the VA, Congress and the Biden administration.

For example, the VA ended a decades-old practice last year of allowing veterans service representatives to review benefits decisions for accuracy before they are finalized and sent to veterans. The groups want leaders to reverse that change.

They also want the VA to add more medical conditions to the list of illnesses presumed to be caused by toxic exposures and create a more uniform way to add illnesses to the list.

“VA has failed to add diseases that have been determined to have a positive scientific association with those known exposures,” the report reads. “Recently, it took Congress to add three diseases that have been pending with VA for four years.”

The groups also want the VA to fill more staff vacancies and enhance mental health and suicide prevention services, as well as better serve female and minority veterans.

Twitter: @nikkiwentling