Are Veterans Getting the Money They Deserve in Latest Budget?

Lawmakers are skeptical that the growing needs of veterans can be met with the amount requested.

Vietnam War veteran Bernie Klemanek of Louisa County, Virginia salutes with fellow veterans during a Veterans Day event at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall November 11, 2013 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
March 12, 2014, 1:54 p.m.

Al­though budget re­quests are routinely dis­missed as pie-in-the-sky wish lists doomed to be slashed, law­makers fear that the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment ac­tu­ally might not be ask­ing for enough money to meet its needs.

Law­makers have a long list of con­cerns about the VA in the latest budget go-round, in which the de­part­ment is ask­ing for $163.9 bil­lion — a 6.5 per­cent in­crease over the cur­rent fisc­al year. They are faced with com­plaints back home of de­fi­cient vet­er­ans’ health cen­ters, long claims back­logs, and ques­tion­able treat­ment for Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan vets who are read­ily pre­scribed heaps of drugs to deal with ser­i­ous post-trau­mat­ic stress dis­order.

“It’s very easy to beat up on the VA,” said Sen­ate Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bernie Sanders at a hear­ing Wed­nes­day on its fisc­al 2015 budget re­quest.

Law­makers from both parties took turns rais­ing wor­ries that the VA is not equipped to handle the vet­er­ans’ needs back in their states, par­tic­u­larly when the wind-down of the Afgh­anistan war is send­ing a grow­ing in­flux of ser­vice­men and wo­men in­to the VA sys­tem.

“As I un­der­stand it, the VA an­ti­cip­ates see­ing an in­crease of ap­prox­im­ately 100,000 new pa­tients in the com­ing year,” said Sanders, a Ver­mont in­de­pend­ent. “But I am con­cerned wheth­er the 3 per­cent in­crease in med­ic­al care that is in the budget will be suf­fi­cient to care for these new users, ex­ist­ing users, will span vet­er­ans ser­vices, and keep pace with all of the is­sues we have here. Is that enough money? It sounds to me like it’s not.”

VA Sec­ret­ary Eric Shin­seki, who was testi­fy­ing be­fore the pan­el, said the VA tried to ask for what it an­ti­cip­ates need­ing for 2015, but he ad­mit­ted that the re­quest was put to­geth­er be­fore the De­fense De­part­ment an­nounced its latest plans to re­duce troop size.

“This budget re­quest is pri­or to that plan be­ing provided,” Shin­seki said. “We be­lieve we have in this budget an­ti­cip­ated what our needs will be in 2015, but this again will de­pend on what the downs­iz­ing plan en­tails.”

Con­gress has long been push­ing the VA to work through its back­log of claims, and law­makers con­tin­ued to press the de­part­ment Wed­nes­day to en­sure it is on track to clear through the back­log in 2015 as planned. Shin­seki said it would.

But the con­cerns most law­makers fo­cused on were about the VA’s ca­pa­city to provide ad­equate men­tal health ser­vices, and its abil­ity to main­tain and de­vel­op suf­fi­cient health care fa­cil­it­ies.

Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Mike Jo­hanns of Neb­raska com­plained about the VA’s pace on cap­it­al im­prove­ment pro­jects. Be­cause an Omaha pro­ject was far down on the wait­ing list, he said it could take years for vet­er­ans to re­ceive the ac­cess that they need.

“What I’m look­ing at, all these pro­jects, a pretty rough es­tim­ate is that $23 bil­lion is ne­ces­sary to ad­dress what is on the wait­ing list,” Jo­hanns said. “How can we best put a pro­cess in place to ad­dress what you are deal­ing with and what we are deal­ing with? It’s a lot of money; it would be very hard to come up with that.”

Shin­seki said that in the budget en­vir­on­ment, the VA is try­ing to pri­or­it­ize pro­jects ap­pro­pri­ately to provide for vet­er­ans’ safety and se­cur­ity and main­tain ex­ist­ing fa­cil­it­ies. The VA has re­ques­ted $561.8 mil­lion for ma­jor con­struc­tion in its fisc­al 2015 budget.

But Jo­hanns ques­tioned wheth­er spend­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars to main­tain old fa­cil­it­ies was ac­tu­ally coun­ter­pro­duct­ive.

“All these mil­lions we are put­ting in­to these fa­cil­it­ies across the coun­try, I just hope we are not chas­ing good money with bad money,” Jo­hanns said.

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