February 5, 2008 – After a year of news reports about a stubborn backlog of 400,000 disability benefits claims and combat veterans turned away from immediate mental health care, the Department of Veterans Affairs unveiled a proposed fiscal 2009 budget that would boost spending on programs for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by 21 percent and cut the disability claims backlog by 24 percent.
Spending on benefits and programs for the estimated 333,000 VA beneficiaries who are veterans of the current wars would increase by $216 million, to a total of $1.27 billion, over the current year. The 2009 budget also would include $3.9 million for mental health care services, a 9 percent increase over the current fiscal-year budget.
All told, VA is seeking $93.7 billion for fiscal 2009, with most of it going toward health care and disability compensation. Discretionary funding — mostly health care — would make up $47.2 billion of the budget, while $46.4 billion would go toward mandatory funding for compensation, education benefits, home loan guarantees, pensions and other benefits programs.
“If you look at health care, it’s more than double it was seven years ago,” said VA Secretary Dr. James Peake, praising the Bush Administration’s request for funding.
The request totals $3.4 billion more than this year’s budget, which was $6.6 billion more than in fiscal 2007 — after Congress added $3.7 billion to President Bush’s original request.
One of the biggest issues facing VA is overwhelmed case workers who can’t keep up with the thousands of new benefits claims that continue to pour in.
Rita Reese, principal deputy assistant secretary for management, said VA plans to increase the number of fulltime case workers from 14,857 to 15,570. She said the budget plan aims to reduce the disability claims backlog to 298,000 by the end of fiscal 2009, a drop of 24 percent.
She said the average length of time required to rule on an initial benefits claim will drop from the current 180 days to about 145 days, a 21 percent improvement over 2007.
One aspect of the VA budget proposal that is likely to draw controversy is a renewed call for an increase in pharmacy co-payments for veterans in the lowest priority patient groups, Priority 7 and 8 — a proposal that in the past has drawn criticism from veterans’ groups and rejection from Congress.
The co-pay would rise to $15 from the current $8 for Priority 7 and 8 veterans, who are considered “middle class” but may have incomes as low as $28,000. Most have medical conditions that are not service-connected.
One of the largest funding boosts for any single program category in the 2009 budget plan would be for long-term noninstitutional care, mainly home care, which would rise to about $762 million, a 28 percent increase over this fiscal year.
The 2009 VA budget plan also envisions the completion of a pilot program being conducted in collaboration with the Defense Department of a new disability evaluation system for wounded warriors at major medical facilities in the Washington, D.C., area.
That initiative is designed to eliminate the duplicative and often confusing elements of the current disability process of the two departments. The pilot program features one medical examination according to VA protocols and a single disability rating determined by VA.