Inflation and pandemic drive proposed VA budget to more than $300 billion
Stars and Stripes March 28, 2022
WASHINGTON — A White House proposal released Monday would push the Department of Veterans Affairs budget to more than $300 billion for the first time, with much of the increase going toward veterans’ medical care.
Overall, the proposal amounts to a 10.5% increase over the VA’s enacted budget for 2022. The White House is requesting about 20% more for medical care, and it cited health care inflation, as well as the lasting effects of the coronavirus pandemic, as major reasons for the boost.
The VA uses modeling similar to what’s used by insurance companies to estimate demands for health care. Based on the agency’s projections, veterans will rely more on the VA for their medical care in 2023, said Laura Duke, chief financial officer of the Veterans Health Administration.
“Increased costs are driven by the pandemic — people who have waited on health care, or may come back sicker,” she said. “And honestly, the model is just leading us to believe that we are looking at a fairly expensive year in 2023.”
In addition to more money for medical care, the proposal increases funding for veteran caregivers by $433 million, and it includes $410 million more for veteran homelessness programs.
The proposal is part of a federal budget blueprint for fiscal 2023 that President Joe Biden unveiled Monday. Biden’s budget totals $5.8 trillion and calls for increased military spending. He’s also urging Congress to approve a new minimum tax on billionaires.
The blueprint will be debated and negotiated by Congress, which is responsible for approving federal budgets. While Congress doesn’t typically approve presidential budgets as proposed, lawmakers have historically given the VA more money than presidents have requested for the department.
The VA’s budget has grown steadily in recent decades. In 2001, it was allocated $45 billion. The department operated on a budget of $90 billion in 2009, and funding for the VA surpassed $200 billion for the first time in 2019.
The VA described Biden’s proposal for 2023 as a “historic increase in total funding” for the department. If the budget were approved as is, the VA’s overall funding would have increased by $104 billion, or 53%, since 2018, according to agency data.
The agency is the third largest federal department in terms of budget. Only the Defense Department and the Department of Health and Human Services are slated to receive more in discretionary funding in 2023.
Of the $300 billion proposed for the VA, $161 billion is mandatory spending, which includes entitlement programs and does not go through the congressional appropriations process. Mandatory spending for 2023 is estimated to total about 6% more than in 2022.
“This budget delivers critical resources to help VA serve veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors as well as they have served our country,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement Monday. “It will allow VA to continue providing more care, more services and more benefits to more veterans than any time in its history.”
The VA is experiencing a surge in backlogged claims for benefits. To address the backlog, the White House proposed funding to hire 795 more claims processors in 2023 and expand a pilot program that would automate part of the process for reviewing benefits claims.
“We’re putting additional resources into hiring more people, more technology, more automation — substantial investments,” said Jon Rychalski, assistant secretary for management at the VA.
In addition, the proposal would fund pay raises and other incentives for VA health care workers and boost recruiting initiatives. VA officials testified to lawmakers last week that the VA health care system has 50,000 vacancies.
The budget proposal would also earmark $805 million for three major construction projects at medical campuses in Portland, Ore., Canandaigua, N.Y., and Fort Harrison, Mont., as well as $163 million for minor construction projects in 10 different locations.
The proposal includes 53 policy changes that Congress must consider, one of which would help veterans who are trying to grow their families. The VA proposes expanding veterans’ access to in-vitro fertilization and providing reimbursements for veterans who adopt children.
The VA proposal also eliminates copayments for birth control for veterans. Some lawmakers have been attempting for the past few years to eliminate VA copays for birth control, but legislation has failed to pass through Congress.
Democrats praised the budget proposal Monday. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, applauded the plan to fund VA infrastructure and increase staff to tackle the claims backlog.
“Living up to the promises made to our nation’s veterans and their families starts with making sure VA has the resources to meet their growing needs,” he said. “We’ve got to see to it that taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly and in a way that best serves our veterans.”
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said he supported the White House’s plan to provide an additional $20 million for research that would further explore the effects of environmental toxic exposures, such as burn pits, on veterans’ health.
Congress is negotiating legislation now that would provide health care and benefits to veterans suffering from illnesses caused by toxic burn pits. Funding to enact that potential legislation is not part of the budget proposal.
“We have a lot of work ahead, but it’s clear to me that President Biden, Secretary McDonough, and I share many of the same priorities,” Takano said in a statement. “I look forward to continuing to work together to serve all those who have served.”
Stars and Stripes Reporter Sara Samora contributed to this report.