Denis McDonough, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, tours a new VA out-patient clinic at Fort Campbell, Ky., in January 2024. 

Denis McDonough, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, tours a new VA out-patient clinic at Fort Campbell, Ky., in January 2024.  (Justin Moeller)

WASHINGTON — The $369 billion spending plan that the Department of Veterans Affairs proposes for fiscal 2025 is “a maintenance budget” that tightens the workforce and pulls back on construction but continues to prioritize disability and health care benefits for veterans, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said Thursday.

Testifying at an oversight hearing of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, McDonough offered an overview of the 2025 budget, which is 10% higher than 2024.

“This budget allows for us to hire and retain the best health care providers for our veterans and that will continue,” he said.

Nearly 500,000 veterans have enrolled in VA health care in the past 12 months under the PACT Act, which McDonough said has changed the health care landscape for the agency.

The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, or PACT Act, “represents the largest expansion of veterans’ benefits in a generation,” he said. “We’re at a critical moment for shaping and securing veteran health care for the future. The goal is to bring as many vets as possible into our care.”

The PACT Act, which became law in August 2022, provides VA health care and benefits to veterans who developed medical conditions after exposure to burn pits, radiation, herbicides and other hazards during military service. About 1.5 million claims for toxic exposure have been filed with more than 694,000 veterans and survivors awarded benefits.

But Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., the committee chairman, questioned whether spending on PACT Act benefits is taking away from basic VA functions.

“We need to have a serious conversation on how the VA is managing taxpayer dollars. New hiring is cut back or frozen, the health care workforce is shrinking and construction has flatlined to only two major projects,” he said. “This is the opposite of what Congress intended. I want effective programs and realistic estimates.”

Bost said it appears that the VA is shifting dollars from regular VA expenses to the toxic exposures fund that compensates disabled veterans under the PACT Act. The fund is projected to provide $24.5 billion in benefits in 2025, up $4 billion from this year.

McDonough said the planned reduction of 10,000 full-time workers follows two years of “robust hiring” that enabled the VA to meet greater demand for care during the coronavirus pandemic and hire technicians to process a surge in disability claims under the PACT Act.

“After having the best hiring year in 30 years last year, we are well-positioned to provide care. This budget makes hard choices, but we put them out there for you to see,” he said.

The Veterans Health Administration hired more than 62,000 health care workers in 2023. The VA employs about 400,000 workers.

McDonough said the focus now will be on retaining doctors, nurses and other front-line health care workers, as well as filling long-term vacancies at VA health facilities where there are shortages of specific workers.

He also pointed to a continued focus in the 2025 budget on addressing veteran suicide and easing homelessness.

More than $3.2 billion is proposed to fund suicide prevention programs and treatments, in addition to the overall $17.1 billion budget for funding mental health care services.

The 2025 budget also provides $3.2 billion for programs that provide housing and other assistance to homeless veterans.

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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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