President Obama has signed a $1.1 trillion omnibus bill that will keep the government funded through the end of September, preventing a potential shutdown. It calls for $63.2 billion, plus more than $3 billion in collections, in discretionary funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is $2.3 billion more than the level enacted in 2013.
Although the amount of funding has increased, it is not sufficient to meet veterans health care and benefit needs, said National Legislative Director Joseph A. Violante. “That includes $58.8 billion for health care and $2.4 billion for the Veterans Benefits Administration for fiscal year 2014.”
The measure provides funding levels that virtually mirror the Administration’s April 2013 budget request. In addition to funding the VA for fiscal year 2014, the omnibus includes $55.6 billion, plus $3.2 billion in collections, in advance funding for veterans medical care for fiscal year 2015. DAV’s advance funding recommendation was $61.6 billion.
“Unfortunately, this budget agreement contains the same inadequate funding levels proposed by the Administration for infrastructure and medical and prosthetic research,” said National Commander Joseph W. Johnston. “Congress needs to dramatically increase annual appropriations required to repair, renovate and replace essential VA medical facilities as well as boost funding for life-saving and life-changing biomedical research programs.”
Particularly worrisome is the reduction in funding for major construction. The measure provides $342 million for major construction, nearly $800 million less than DAV recommended, and billions less than what’s truly needed. Additionally, the omnibus slashes nearly $500 million in funding for medical facilities.
“Funding to maintain the VA’s critical infrastructure has not kept pace with the growing needs,” said National Adjutant Marc Burgess. “For years, construction and repairs have been put on hold because of funding shortfalls. Not only does that hinder the VA’s ability to modernize its aging infrastructure, but it also puts veterans at risk.”
The omnibus provides $585.6 million for medical and prosthetic research, which is $3.5 million above the 2013 enacted level but $25 million below DAV’s recommendation.
The measure provides new tools and resources for the Veterans Benefits Administration to address the backlog of disability claims by increasing personnel, strengthening accountability and enhancing training and quality oversight.
“The VA’s efforts to streamline the claims process and eliminate the backlog are encouraging,” said Washington Headquarters Executive Director Garry Augustine. We look forward to continued progress in improved accuracy and timeliness.”
Other highlights of the measure include $3.7 billion for information technology systems, which is $378.7 million more than the 2013 enacted level. However, those funds are restricted until the VA reports detailed plans on budgets, timelines and testing, to ensure reliable interoperability between the current and future electronic health records systems of the VA and the Department of Defense.