House Approves Healthy VA Increase, Weak Spots Remain

The House of Representatives has passed and sent to the Senate for consideration legislation appropriating $158.2 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). This represents an increase of $10.3 billion above the fiscal year 2014 level. Although it is close to what the Administration requested, it falls short of the VA’s true need in a number of areas.

Discretionary funding alone for veterans programs in the bill constitutes $67.8 billion. Approximately $55.6 billion of this discretionary total was provided last year via  advance funding in the fiscal year 2014 appropriations bill. The bill funds VA medical services at $45 billion, providing for approximately 6.7 million patients to be treated in fiscal year 2015. Within this total funding is $7.2 billion in mental health care services; $133 million in suicide prevention activities; $229 million for traumatic brain injury treatment; $7.4 billion in homeless veterans treatment, services, housing and job training; and $250 million in rural health initiatives.

“The measure provides more funding for VA medical care than the 2014 appropriation and is about the same as the president’s request, but it’s still $2.4 billion below the amount recommended in The Independent Budget,” said Washington Headquarters Executive Director Garry Augustine.

The bill also contains $58.7 billion in advance fiscal year 2016 funding for VA medical care—the same level as the president’s request. This funding is more than $741 million less than veterans groups recommended for medical services, medical support and compliance, and medical facilities. Most of the shortfall is due to the continued underfunding of nonrecurring maintenance for VA facilities, similar to the draconian reductions identified for construction funding over the last several years.

Major and minor construction within the VA is funded at almost $1.2 billion, yet the bill does not provide funding for major new hospital construction projects. It does, however, allow the VA to continue to correct safety issues and deficiencies and to make patient care improvements at several facilities.

“Both the president’s request and the House bill are less than a third of The Independent Budget recommendation for construction,” said National Legislative Director  Joseph A. Violante. “Both the Administration and Congress have failed for years to provide adequate funding to meet the VA’s critical infrastructure needs. That continues to put the quality of care and the well-being of veterans in jeopardy.”

The legislation also includes provisions to increase oversight of taxpayer dollars at the VA, including requiring the department to report on construction expenditures and savings, forbidding new changes in the scope of construction projects and restricting the agency from taking certain spending actions without notifying Congress.

Also of concern is a $23 million shortfall in DAV’s recommended funding for medical and prosthetic research, according to Augustine. “With veterans surviving longer with serious and often atrophic injuries, it is imperative that the VA remain on the leading edge in the research field.”

The fiscal 2015 VA appropriation bill includes $173 million for the paperless claims-processing system and an increase of $20 million above the request for digital scanning of health records, centralized mail and overtime to cut the backlog in disability compensation claims. In addition, rigorous reporting requirements to track the performance of each regional office on claims processing are continued.

“The Veterans Benefits Administration has made significant progress in its massive transformation, and DAV believes there has been sufficient progress to merit continued support of the current efforts,” Violante said. “Congress must provide the support and resources necessary to complete this transformation as currently planned, while continuing to exercise strong oversight to ensure that VBA remains focused on the long-term goal of creating a new claims-processing system that decides each claim right the first time.”

Mandatory spending in the bill includes funding for compensation programs for 4.6 million veterans and their survivors; education benefits for more than 1 million veterans; and vocational rehabilitation and employment training for more than 130,000 veterans.

“DAV continues to monitor progress of funding legislation and make our concerns known at every opportunity,” Violante said. “We need to ensure that our government fulfills its promises to America’s veterans and their families.”