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WASHINGTON — Department of Veterans Affairs officials went to the Senate on Wednesday and defended President Joe Biden’s request for a 10% increase for the agency, including a 15% boost in funding for medical care.  

Biden proposed a total budget of $296.9 billion for the VA in fiscal year 2022. Of that amount, $97.5 billion would go toward veterans’ medical care. Congress ultimately determines the VA’s budget, and some Republicans have quizzed VA Secretary Denis McDonough about the need for the increase. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., questioned him Wednesday during a hearing of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.  

“The VA is seeking another record budget,” Moran said. “Here is where I mostly need answers: The VA is asking for a 15% increase in medical spending this year. How does this marry up with actual patient care?”  

McDonough insisted that the department has experienced high demand for care during the last few months, and he believes the trend will continue.  

From March to May this year, veterans scheduled 16.55 million appointments at the VA and an additional 1.23 million appointments through the agency’s community care program. That’s an increase of 80% from the same time period last year, when the VA canceled and postponed many appointments in response to the coronavirus pandemic.  

McDonough predicted that the demand for care would remain high, at least through the end of the year.  

“The actuarial numbers suggest we should anticipate this level of care for some period,” he told reporters during a news briefing Tuesday.  

The surge in care is the reason for about 8% of the proposed 15% boost in medical funding for the VA, said Jon Rychalski, the VA’s chief financial officer.  

The VA also requested the boost because more veterans are beginning to rely on the VA for a greater amount of their health care. Historically, veterans have used the VA for about 30% of their health care. That number is on the rise, Rychalski said.  

The department is seeing a significant increase in emergency room visits, which tend to be more expensive. Rychalski said the number of visits is “off the charts,” but it’s uncertain why.  

“People are accessing emergency rooms at rates we’ve just not seen before,” he said. “It’s increased dramatically.”  

VA officials will continue to testify to Congress about the budget proposal as lawmakers work to pass a federal budget before the end of fiscal year 2021, which is Sept. 30. McDonough was allotted five minutes for an opening statement at the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Wednesday, and he chose to say only one sentence about the budget. 

“The most important sentence is this one: I commit to using these appropriated resources responsibly, being fully transparent with you and getting the greatest value out of every dollar,” he said.  

Wentling.nikki@stripes.com

Twitter: @nikkiwentling  

Veterans Affairs Building in Washington, D.C.
Veterans Affairs Building in Washington, D.C. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)
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