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Bipartisan legislative group wants to change VA funding

Feb. 20, 2014 - 05:16PM   |  
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A quiet backdrop to Washington’s government shutdown last October was the anxiety rippling through 3.9 million disabled veterans who rely on government compensation for wounds and injuries, their advocates say.

“It is not widely known, but during the last shutdown, we were seven, 10 days away from not being able to send out checks to disabled veterans,” says Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

The money is the only thing many veterans have in such cases, says Craig Prosser, who works with veterans in Tulsa, Okla.

“I have veterans who are married, have kids and have severe PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), TBI (traumatic brain injury), depression and they are unable to actually work,” he says. “I’m talking 27-, 28-, 30-, 35-year-old men and women ... who don’t have anything else because they can’t do anything else because of their diagnoses.”

Bipartisan bills were introduced last year in the House and Senate to provide what veterans organization, led by the Disabled American Veterans, say is a simple fix: approve a budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs one year in advance.

The bills have yet to pass.

Similar legislation approved in 2009 led to advanced budget funding for veterans’ medical care and the result was that during the shutdown last year VA hospitals remained open.

There was no advanced funding, however, for the process of assessing compensation claims and sending out checks to veterans. That hurt the department’s efforts to cut the backlog of aging compensation claims, and the VA very nearly ran out of money to pay ongoing compensation benefits.

“Advanced funding works,” says Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “I think it’s important that we do a two-year funding cycle or advanced funding cycle where we don’t end up with an extremely hot political issue should Congress not be able to to do its job, as we haven’t on an annual basis.”

Sanders and Miller say there is bipartisan support for advanced funding of VA operations including construction of new medical clinics, scientific research, education and homeless benefits, veteran cemetery burials and operations and more.

Resistance to full advanced funding for VA within Congress comes from members of appropriations committees who worry they will not be able to closely monitor how the department operates, Miller and Sanders say.

But both committee chairmen argue that the same level of oversight can be provided even if funding numbers are approved a year in advance.

Moreover, the legislation costs nothing, says Joseph Violante, Disabled American Veterans national legislative director. “VA doesn’t get the money until the fiscal year begins,” he said.

Impatience over the failure of Congress to act has pushed the DAV to rally disabled veterans on Capitol grounds next Tuesday, urging them to visit members of Congress or use social media on that day to push for change. The organization is calling it Operation Keep the Promise.

The VA would not comment on pending legislation, but offered a statement that appears to endorse the status quo, while referencing other federal agencies that do not have advanced funding: “The best way to care for veterans is for Congress to provide full funding for VA and the entire government each year through the established appropriations process.”

VA press secretary Drew Brookie declined to elaborate.

Former department officials, however, say the off-and-on budgetary crisis plaguing Washington hampers efforts to provide care and services for veterans.

“When you have (budgetary) uncertainty, you can only manage through the short-term and things can get stalled, things get delayed, decisions get altered,” says Bob Epley, a former benefits executive who currently serves on a VA advisory committee.

Department chiefs will hesitate to spend money, knowing that any unspent funds can be used as an emergency resource should the government once again shut down, Epley says.

“What you’re talking about is placing a drag on service operations,” says Ron Aument, formerly chief operating officer for the VA.

He says that after a government shutdown, furloughed employees can recover lost pay but their services lost during the shutdown are never recovered.

“Those hours of work that they should have been producing on those programs are gone,” he says.

Miller says allowing the advanced funding of VA operations would finally “do away with the potential of using veterans as a pawn in funding shutdowns in the future.”

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