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The Veterans Affairs Department does not appear to be feeling the pinch of fiscal austerity in President Obama’s 2014 budget proposal: The White House has proposed a 10.2 percent boost in funding for VA next year, totaling $66.5 billion in discretionary spending.
The $153 billion VA budget request, with a proposed 4.3 percent increase for services including health care, education, employment, transition and claims processing, “keeps faith with veterans,” Obama said in a statement to Congress.
“The budget upholds our solemn obligation to service members and veterans … giving our veterans the benefits, education, and job opportunities that they have earned,” the president wrote.
A significant portion of the $54.6 billion health care budget, $4.1 billion, would go to treat Iraq and Afghanistan veterans; $2.5 billion is marked for prosthetics; and $6.9 billion is for mental health services.
VA officials have said the mental health funds are needed to meet obligations of an executive order to expand access to care as well as to partner with civilian organizations in an effort to broaden services.
VA has faced harsh criticism from lawmakers and veterans service organizations for failing to provide timely care for veterans in crisis.
“VA’s commitment to veterans spans generations,” VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said in a statement on the budget request, unveiled Wednesday. “From the men and women of ‘the greatest generation’ to the veterans who have returned from Iraq and those returning from Afghanistan, VA will make sure our benefits are useful and accessible.”
About $2.5 billion — a 13.6 percent increase from this year’s budget — is earmarked for the Veterans Benefits Administration, the largest increase of any segment of discretionary spending. The figure includes at least $300 million for programs to reduce the VA’s claims backlog.
The proposal includes $155 million to complete the rollout of a new paperless processing system as well as $136 million for a system that will allow VA to convert supporting evidence for claims, such as paper records, notes and testimonials, into digital format.
Shinseki said last week the goal is to eliminate the backlog by 2015. About 890,000 claims are pending, with 620,000 of those pending for 125 days or longer, according to figures provided by VA.
“Too many veterans have waited too long. This has never been acceptable to any of us. We are putting in place a robust plan to address this problem,” Shinseki said during a news briefing to highlight VA’s budget priorities.
But VA Chief Financial Officer W. Todd Grams said Wednesday if the department does not receive the funding increases for VBA or for information technology, it will not be able to meet that 2015 goal.
“This IT increase is a critical component to eliminating the backlog,” Grams said.
Another large expense in the proposed budget is $1 billion for a Veterans Job Corps, a hiring initiative aimed at placing veterans in jobs in conservation, law enforcement and federal agencies. VA estimates that 783,000 veterans are out of work, including 207,000 veterans from recent conflicts.
The budget also seeks to make permanent two tax credits for companies that hire unemployed veterans, including disabled service members, and provides $104 million for a new Transition Assistance Program called “Transition GPS” that would provide pre-separation assessments and instruction before service members leave the military.
Obama’s plan to broaden employment opportunities does not stop at the VA budget: The Labor Department’s Veterans Employment and Training Service budget for 2014 includes $300.5 million, a 12.9 percent increase from fiscal 2013. The Labor Department would spend $14 million on transition assistance workshops alone.
“The U.S. military discharges approximately 160,000 active-duty service members and approximately 110,000 Reserve and National Guard service members annually, and VETS expects greater demand for transition assistance and employment services for veterans over the next few years,” according to the Labor Department’s budget statement.
The biggest increase in the VA budget proposal would come in mandatory spending — programs required by law to be funded, such as disability claims and pensions. The $86.1 billion in projected mandatory spending would be 15.3 percent higher than in 2013.
The proposal seeks $52.7 billion for VA health care, a 4.1 percent increase over 2013 budget. VA believes it will treat at least 6.5 million veterans in fiscal 2014, including 675,000 who began serving after Sept. 11, 2001.
Other items in the budget include:
$1.4 billion for programs to reduce veteran homelessness.
$8.8 million for the “VetSuccess on Campus” program, a transition initiative at 84 colleges.
$1.2 billion for construction and cemetery grants.
House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said Friday he was skeptical of the need for increased funding, given VA’s track record on reaching its goals to improve claims services and mental health care access.
“While I have always been supportive of giving VA every available resource it needs to accomplish its mission, the department owes it to America’s veterans and American taxpayers to ensure than any budget increases are accompanied by increases in productivity and better service to veterans,” he said.
Miller’s committee will hold an oversight hearing on the VA budget on Thursday.
Staff writer Rick Maze contributed to this report.