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Key Republican suggests VA budget may be big enough already

January 31, 2017 (Photo Credit: Courtesy of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee)
The days of ever-increasing budgets for the Department of Veterans Affairs may be over, according to comments from the new chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Tuesday.

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said after the committee’s first meeting of the new congressional session that he doesn’t think the problems facing the massive veterans bureaucracy stem from a lack of funding.  

“I think we have enough money in the VA system to do our mission,” he said. “I think we’re just not spending it wisely.

“I think we have the resources there, we just have to spend the money smarter. I think we can work with the budget we have.”  

The department’s budget for fiscal 2017 totals $176.9 billion, including mandatory benefits spending and $74.4 billion in discretionary funds. In fiscal 2001, the VA budget was $45 billion for discretionary and mandatory funds.

Much of that increase came during the tenure of President Barack Obama, where yearly budget increases of at least 4 percent were the norm.

VA officials in the last administration said the increase in veterans’ use rates for programs and new mandates from lawmakers necessitated large jumps in funding.

But Republicans on Capitol Hill over the last year have begun questioning whether annual spending increases for the department are producing worthwhile returns, and hinting at more fiscal belt-tightening for VA programs.  

Earlier on Tuesday, a report from NPR said billions of dollars allocated for personnel plus ups at understaffed medical centers did not necessarily result in more medical workers or better service for veterans.

Roe’s predecessor, former Florida congressman Jeff Miller, and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., made similar comments at the start of 2016, but lawmakers still approved a 4 percent increase in VA spending later in the year.  

Roe’s comments come as President Trump looks to overhaul parts of VA, following his campaign promises improve services and access to all veterans. Trump has hinted that could include expanding more private care options for some patients, a plan that outside analysts have said could add billions of dollars more to the VA budget.  

The committee chairman said reconciling those issues is “a huge challenge ahead” but said that congressional oversight and scrutiny of money being spent will be key in the months to come.

“I don’t believe we are getting our money’s worth right now,” he said of the VA budget. “I believe we can do better.”


 
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.
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