VA Budget Deals With Homelessness and Jobs

February 13, 2012 ( – The Department of Veterans Affairs sent Congress a proposed budget of $140 billion for fiscal 2013 on Monday, which includes a 33 percent increase in funding to tackle homelessness and a $1 billion request for a new Veterans Job Corps.

In a statement, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki said the proposed budget would also fund services for newly discharged vets, improve access to benefits, bring down the disability claims backlog, and beef up the department’s information technology program.

“As our newest veterans return home, we must give them the care, the benefits, the job opportunities and the respect they have earned, while honoring our commitments to veterans of previous eras,” Shinseki said.

More than half the $140 billion requested is already spoken for. The VA says $76 billion is intended to cover mandatory expenses such as disability compensation and pensions. About $64 billion is discretionary spending to cover programs ranging from the proposed jobs package to ending homelessness to construction at VA facilities.

The proposed budget includes $792 million to get new health care facilities up and running, including new hospitals in New Orleans, Las Vegas, Denver and Orlando. It also would designate $397 million to continue construction of medical facilities at Seattle, Dallas, St. Louis and Palo Alto, Calif.

Overall, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wa.) said the VA spending package would provide reassurance to veterans during “an extremely difficult budget climate.”

“It represents a 15 percent increase over the VA budget enacted last year and provides critical help in the areas of mental health care and getting our veterans back to work,” she said, calling the proposed spending “sorely needed” investments.

When Shinseki became head of the VA in 2009, he made a pledge to eliminate veteran homelessness within five years. The $1.4 billion requested for that purpose next year is an increase of about 33 percent over that appropriated for 2012.

Between 2010 and 2011 veteran homelessness dropped from 76,300 to 67,500, the VA claims. But Shinseki’s budget projects that by emphasizing the prevention of homelessness, the overall number of vets out on the streets at night can be reduced to about 35,000 by the end of 2013.

The request to fight homelessness includes $21 million set aside to hire 200 coordinators to assist homeless vets with disability claims, housing problems, job and vocational opportunities and court issues.

Another $300 million would be used in grants and assistance to community non-profit organizations, to keep vets and their families in their current homes or to get them quickly into housing.

 The VA is also asking Congress for $1 billion to launch President Obama’s proposed Veterans Job Corps, which the White House hopes will put some 20,000 vets to work restoring, protecting, and maintaining National Parks and other resources.

White House officials likened the program to the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, in which the federal government put thousands of Americans to work on public land projects across the U.S.

The program will be open to all veterans, but will have a particular focus on Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters Feb. 2.

Elsewhere, the budget requests a 4 percent increase in total medical care costs, to nearly $53 billion.

Within the medical care budget, the VA is seeking $6 billion for mental health programs, representing a 5 percent increase over current funding. Officials say the larger appropriation will increase outreach and screenings; expand technologies for self-assessment and post-traumatic stress disorder symptom management; and enhance programs aimed at reducing the stigma of mental health.

The VA is also asking for $403 million for women’s-specific health care needs, including improving female vets’ access to services and treatment facilities.

The VA’s budget request gives Congress a heads-up on what it could request in 2014 for medical care, an advance appropriation request it has been allowed to make since 2009. Next year, it says it will ask for $54.5 billion, which it expects will support about 6.38 million patients.

That’s about 500,000 more patients than the VA currently cares for, according to the department’s figures.

The VA wants $233 million for its vocational rehabilitation and employment program. The request is about 14 percent above current funding, but officials said they expect a jump in the number of wounded, injured and sick servicemembers who will use the program as they transition back to the civilian world.

About 108,000 people used the program in 2011, but the VA says that number likely will go up to 130,000 next year.

The VA is also asking for $258 million to operate and maintain its 131 cemeteries across the U.S. The request, slightly higher than the $250 million requested a year ago, supports initial implementation of a new policy to set up a national cemetery in eight rural areas. Monday’s budget statement did not identify the locations.

That figure also includes $46 million — the same amount sought last year — to continue partnering with states to fund construction, expansion and improvement to state veterans’ cemeteries, and to support veteran cemeteries on tribal lands.

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