May 19, 2008 – A coalition of veterans’ groups wants Congress to ensure that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has predictable medical care funding to better treat injured soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
While more political attention has been paid to a possible expansion of education benefits for returning soldiers under a new GI bill, some veterans’ groups are highlighting the need to improve VA’s funding.
The Disabled American Veterans (DAV) is leading a coalition of groups that are pressing lawmakers to approve advance appropriations for medical care as part of the VA’s budget. This would give the VA much more certainty over its funding, as it would know its budget a year in advance. For example, funding for 2010 would have to be approved this year.
The change would mean that “veterans would no longer be used as a political football,” said Joe Violante, DAV’s national legislative director.
“It is a lot cheaper to provide veteran care through the VA than it is to provide it by Medicare or Medicaid,” said Violante. “If we put the resources into the VA it would certainly be fiscally responsible.”
Congress now appropriates VA medical care funds on an annual basis. Political squabbling has delayed VA funding in 13 of the past 14 years — something that has severely hampered the department’s ability to plan and manage its healthcare system, according to DAV’s talking points.
Veterans’ groups say the change would ensure the agency can better handle the growing number of veterans dependent on it for medical care.
More troops are surviving attacks on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan thanks to improved equipment, but many return with traumatic brain injuries, lost limbs, severe burns or blindness that can make them dependent on VA care for a lifetime. Since many of those injured are only in their 20s, some will require decades of medical attention.
Veterans’ organizations and their supporters in Congress for years have pressed that the VA budget be mandatory, as this would give the agency the most stability.
The groups have now shifted to pushing for the more realistic goal of advance appropriations. Besides DAV, the groups include the American Legion , Veterans of Foreign Wars , Paralyzed Veterans of America and Blinded Veterans Association .
DAV argues that under its proposal, Congress would retain its discretion to approve appropriations, as well as its oversight ability.
An added benefit would be that advance appropriations would not fall under pay-as-you-go budgetary rules, which do cover mandatory funding. This means the advance appropriations would not have to be offset by spending cuts or revenue raisers, requirements that make it harder to move legislation.
Fifty percent of VA’s funding is for veteran benefits, which are mandatory entitlement spending.
The other half is discretionary and covers healthcare. The majority of that funding goes to medical care, while a small portion goes into construction, prosthetic research and veterans’ support homes. DAV is focusing specifically on the medical care portion of the budget as an advance appropriation.
Violante said that DAV has met with leadership staff in both the House and the Senate and has talked to the VA committee leadership about the proposal.
“The idea resonates better in Congress than mandatory funding,” Violante said.
DAV and the veterans’ groups coalition is going to present the proposal to the presidential candidates as well, hoping that they would include it as part of their agenda.
The Democratic contenders, Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), have both been supporters of mandatory funding for the VA. The Republican contender, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), does not support mandatory funding. McCain, who touts himself as a fiscal hawk, would not want to add to entitlement spending and supports having strong oversight of the budget.
Apart from Congress, the proposal may face significant hurdles in the Office of Management and Budget. OMB, which sets the administration’s spending levels, is concerned the proposal would attract all veterans to the VA system.
Only about 5.5 million of the nation’s 25 million veterans now use the VA system, but if funding were more predictable, some think more veterans would use it, putting pressure on the system.
DAV will present its new proposal at a hearing on Wednesday in the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. It will be presented as an alternative to a bill backed by Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D) that would make VA funding mandatory
DAV supports Johnson’s bill, but will present its new proposal as an alternative that could get more bipartisan support.