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Slight increase proposed in VA budget

Mar. 4, 2014 - 04:32PM   |  
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The Veterans Affairs Department would see another modest increase in spending under the White House fiscal 2015 budget proposal, with more money for homelessness efforts and aid for returning combat troops.

Administration officials touted the nearly $164 billion VA budget plan as providing significant resources to veterans and military families, through funding to boost medical care options, assist service members transitioning to civilian life, eliminate veterans’ homelessness, and end the disability claims backlog.

The plan calls for $65.3 in discretionary funding for VA programs, roughly a 3 percent increase from fiscal 2014.

Mandatory funding — mostly disability compensation and pensions for veterans — will see a 10 percent jump to $95.6 billion, and the budget plan also assigns $58.7 billion for advance medical appropriations for fiscal 2016.

The VA budget has risen dramatically since the start of the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan. Total department spending in 2004 was just under $64 billion, about $100 less than this year’s proposed target.

But despite the hefty total, the budget provides few new initiatives, instead focusing on the administration’s already stated goals. VA leaders have pledged to zero out the claims backlog in 2015, and find housing for all homeless veterans by the start of 2016.

“This budget will allow us to continue the progress we have made in helping veterans secure their place in the middle class,” VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said in a statement. “We remain committed to providing veterans the opportunity to pursue their education, find meaningful employment and access high-quality health care.”

Homlessness prevention efforts would see an 18 percent increase in funding from fiscal 2014 under the proposal, totaling $1.6 billion. Of that, $500 million would go to Supportive Services for Veteran Families grants, which provide funding to third-party groups to assist families in need.

Prosthetics research and care would see a $309 million increase, up 7 percent from last fiscal year. The budget would set aside $403 million for health care services specifically designed for women, up 9 percent from fiscal 2014.

Mental health care services would get a 4.4 percent increase, and total about $7.2 billion of the budget.

Despite the program boosts, veterans’ groups again expressed concerns that the VA spending plan doesn’t include enough money for construction projects and facility maintenance.

In an independent budget proposal released last month, veterans’ advocates said VA’s $1.2 billion construction budget needs to be tripled to meet the needs of the department’s aging infrastructure.

“With buildings that have an average age of 60 years, VA confronts a monumental task of improving and maintaining these facilities,” the groups wrote. “A VA budget that does not adequately fund facility maintenance and construction needs will reduce the timeliness and quality of care for veterans.”

The budget plan also includes $1 billion for creation of a Veterans Job Corps, an initiative to put former service members to work as police officers, emergency response personnel and park rangers.

Congress has rejected that plan each of the last two years, calling the idea too broad and expensive.

VA estimates that it will treat 6.7 million patients next fiscal year. About 11 percent of them served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

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