Leading veterans organizations are pressuring lawmakers to approve an omnibus bill to expand community services for aging and disabled veterans as the top official for the Department of Veterans Affairs criticized its $1.7 billion price tag.

Leading veterans organizations are pressuring lawmakers to approve an omnibus bill to expand community services for aging and disabled veterans as the top official for the Department of Veterans Affairs criticized its $1.7 billion price tag. (Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Leading veterans organizations pressured lawmakers this week to approve an omnibus bill to expand community services for aging and disabled veterans as the top official for the Department of Veterans Affairs criticized its $1.7 billion price tag.

“I have concerns about new programs that don’t come with new money,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said Tuesday about the Senator Elizabeth Dole 21st Century Veterans Healthcare and Benefits Improvement Act, which contains 22 provisions for providing veterans’ health benefits and services in community-based settings and at home.

Hours after McDonough discussed the omnibus bill at his monthly news conference, a coalition of veterans organizations held their own news conference at the Washington headquarters of the Veterans of Foreign Wars to voice support for the bill. Participants included the Disabled American Veterans, American Legion, Elizabeth Dole Foundation, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and Wounded Warrior Project, among others.

“With the November elections approaching, the next few weeks are the last and best opportunity for Congress to pass meaningful legislation supporting veterans,” the coalition said in a joint statement about the Dole Act.

The bill was introduced in May by Rep. Juan Ciscomani, R-Ariz., and it has 27 Republican co-sponsors. No hearings have been scheduled on the legislation, which was referred to the House committees on Veterans’ Affairs, Natural Resources and Armed Services. But opposition from some Democratic lawmakers has raised doubts about passage of the bill.

“House Republicans have hijacked a historically bipartisan, bicameral process for veterans’ packages to push their main priority of privatizing VA health care,” Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., said earlier this month.

McDonough questioned how to fund the bill.

“There are a lot of provisions in the bill and none of them come with new funding,” he said. “And I’ve discussed a lot about making sure that we’re meeting all the demands for VA in the context of the budget agreement – and it’s a very generous budget agreement.”

The proposed VA spending plan for fiscal 2025 is $369.3 billion, a 10% increase from 2024.

“I know the secretary has concerns about the funding VA will require. However, creating or expanding programs before funds are requested and approved is a standard legislative process,” said Randy Reese, the executive director of the Disabled American Veterans in Washington. “Veterans have waited long enough, and we demand Congress send the Dole Act to the president’s desk immediately. VA should then seek Congress’ approval for the necessary appropriations to implement the legislation.”

McDonough in recent weeks has talked about the challenge of continuing to fund VA health programs as the demand for private care increases.

“Either [the VA] purchases the care for the veteran in the community, or we ensure that the VA has all the capacity in-house to provide that care,” he said. “That gets more difficult as more veterans are referred” to private doctors for their care.

Nurses and other staff at VA facilities recently warned jobs at VA hospitals and clinics have remained vacant with little or no attempt to fill them.

VA nurses staged a rally this month outside VA headquarters in Washington to call attention to chronic staff shortages at department health care facilities. The nurses claimed the VA is intentionally not filling positions for nurses and other staff to keep costs down, an assertion the VA denied.

Reese said Tuesday that the goal of Disabled American Veterans and other veterans groups is not to take away resources from VA hospitals and clinics but to address deficiencies in the delivery of health care to veterans in greatest need.

He said the bill has provisions that cover more services for enabling disabled and aging veterans to live at home and in their communities, in lieu of round-the-clock nursing home care.

Heather Ansley, chief policy officer at Paralyzed Veterans of America, said her organization supports the bill because it increases coverage for at-home care for veterans with catastrophic disabilities.

“When veterans hit the current cap [on reimbursements], they are often forced to make decisions that tear them away from their families and their communities because of an arbitrary limitation on their ability to receive care in their homes,” she said.

Kathleen McCarthy, press secretary for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said GOP bill sponsors anticipate the cost of the Dole Act could be covered by an extension of the VA home loan funding fee.

“This is a bipartisan effort that has been used to fund new VA programs for decades,” she said.

The VA fee is a one-time payment borrowers pay on VA-backed or VA-direct home loans, according to the agency.

“The VA does not have legal authority to reallocate savings from funding fees to other budgetary accounts,” said Terrence Hayes, the VA press secretary. “Savings associated with funding fees are associated with a mandatory budgetary account distinct from the accounts that would be used to fund and implement other provisions in the Elizabeth Dole Act.”

Fee collections finance VA credit programs and are not considered government revenues for the federal budget deficit or surplus calculations, he added.

The projected $1.7 billion price tag of the omnibus bill covers community programs and home services for 10 years.

Negotiated by the chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees, the sweeping package includes proposals to expand end-of-life home care, extend high-tech job training and connect homeless veterans with telehealth services.

“The men and women who have served and sacrificed for our nation have earned a VA that works with them — not against them,” Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said when the bill was introduced.

Proposed measures also would bring greater urgency to providing intensive mental health treatment for veterans in crisis, according to lawmakers and veterans advocates.

“The Dole Act condenses dozens of critical provisions found in several bills introduced over the past year that are of utmost urgency to the lives of America’s veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors,” Reese said.

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Linda F. Hersey is a veterans reporter based in Washington, D.C. She previously covered the Navy and Marine Corps at Inside Washington Publishers. She also was a government reporter at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in Alaska, where she reported on the military, economy and congressional delegation.

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