After Criticizing Bloated VA Budget, House Agrees to Boost It By $170 Million

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Denis McDonough, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, at Quantico National Cemetery
Denis McDonough, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, gives the keynote speech at Quantico National Cemetery in Triangle, Virginia on May 28, 2021. (George Nudo/U.S. Marine Corps)

The Department of Veterans Affairs, which has already requested a 10% boost to its fiscal 2022 budget, would receive that and an extra $170 million under the first draft of a funding bill released Thursday by the House Appropriations Committee.

Under the proposal, the VA would receive nearly $270 billion, including $113.1 billion in discretionary spending and $113.1 billion in advanced funding for veterans medical care for fiscal 2023.

Much of the $170 million increase would go to health care services, including $73 million added to the $778.5 million request for women's health and $1 million above the $13.2 billion request for mental health services.

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The bill also would fully fund the VA's construction projects, assistance programs for an estimated 37,200 homeless veterans and rural health initiatives -- all budget items that VA Secretary Denis McDonough said Wednesday are important to ensure the safety and health of 9.6 million enrolled veterans.

"This proposed budget allows us to deliver high quality health care and benefits to our veterans, and it does so in large part by enabling the work of great people," McDonough told members of a Senate oversight committee.

In the past year, the VA has received more than $36 billion for COVID-19 relief and recovery, and it could receive up to $18 billion in the American Jobs Plan for VA health care infrastructure and $260 million in the American Families Plan for veterans who are parents.

Critics have begun questioning the growth of the VA's budget in the past two decades, which has risen from $47 billion in 2000 to $240 billion this year. Two wars have produced the largest number of veterans since the Vietnam era, and the department faces an infrastructure crisis with a $60 billion backlog in maintenance and construction needs.

Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., the ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and others wrote the House Budget Committee earlier this month, noting their concerns about the VA's budget.

"The Administration's request begs the question: At what point does VA become adequately funded?" the lawmakers wrote. "We believe some level of continued annual increases, above general inflation, would be warranted as long as they were supported by demand and demonstrated as necessary to continue this improvement trend."

The new proposal would bolster the VA's women's health budget by nearly 18% from fiscal 2021. The department currently provides benefits and health care to 561,000 female vets. Women are the fastest growing demographic in the veteran population, expected to reach 18% of the group by 2040. Just two decades ago, women made up only 4% of all veterans.

To meet this growing demand, the VA has sought to broaden gender-specific care and reorganize facilities to accommodate women's clinics. Earlier this year, then-President Donald Trump signed the Deborah Sampson Act, which mandated that every VA health facility have a women's health primary care provider.

The proposal also seeks to expand a VA program to deliver wellness services and medical care to vets, known as "whole health." The bill would provide $84 million for these services, adding $10 million above President Joe Biden's budget request to expand a program that currently serves roughly 7.4% of VA patients.

The bill also would add $20 million more in funding for medical and prosthetics research.

Among the programs that would see budget cuts, however, is the VA’s new electronic health records system, currently under a "strategic pause" while the department reviews its challenging rollout last year in the Pacific Northwest, and plans moving forward.

According to the bill, $2.6 billion is marked for continued implementation of the new digital medical records system, which is $10 million more than it received this year but $26 million below the VA request.

McDonough said Wednesday he believes the system is "basically sound" but the VA must invest more in training on the system and supporting those who use it.

A report on the system review will be released next week, he added.

In addition to VA funding, the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Other Related Agencies appropriations bill includes:

  • $228 million for Arlington National Cemetery, including full funding for the site's Southern Expansion project tol add 80,000 more burial spots
  • $88.1 million for the American Battle Monuments Commission, $3.3 million more than the president's budget request, to support continued maintenance and visitor and education services
  • $77 million for the Armed Forces Retirement Home, $1.7 million above the request to make improvements in safety and care infrastructure

The subcommittee will consider the bill on Friday, as well as amendments from members. It then will proceed to the full committee for consideration and additions, followed by a full vote in the House and reconciliation with the Senate -- a process that is supposed to be completed by Oct. 1 but has been delayed as a result of the Biden administration’s late release of its budget request in May.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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