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A key House appropriator hinted Tuesday he may block another funding increase for the Department of Veterans Affairs next year, noting more than a decade of steady spending boosts for veterans programs.

Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., who chairs the Appropriations veteran affairs subcommittee, called the White House request for a $3.6 billion hike next year “a real heavy lift in the current environment” and “a non-starter.”

He also questioned the department’s overall strategy of trying to build up staffing and infrastructure to deal with increased health care demands from veterans.

“In my view, the VA would serve veterans better if it contracted more with existing private providers, rather than try and establish an in-house capacity,” he told department leaders at a budget hearing Wednesday. “It seems like VA has chosen the route of increasing everything … without a long-term strategy defining what these approaches should be.”

House Republicans and VA leaders sparred for most of last year over similar fiscal issues, with lawmakers advancing a spending plan $1.4 billion below what White House officials insisted was needed to keep pace with programming needs. That money was eventually restored in the final budget deal.

The fiscal 2017 budget request tops $177.6 billion, an increase of almost 9 percent from this year. It also sets aside $104 billion more in advance appropriations for fiscal 2018, to ensure that potential congressional funding battles won’t disrupt critical department operations.

In fiscal 2001, the department’s budget totaled $45 billion.

In response to Dent’s critique, VA Secretary Bob McDonald said the department has worked to cut waste and improve efficiencies.

New pharmacy management programs cut $4.2 billion in potentially unneeded medical purchases last year, and the department has cut more than $500 million in travel spending in the last three years. Employee award spending and Senior Executive Service bonuses were cut by more than $200 million over the last four years.

But McDonald also argued the additional funding is critical to avoid past problems with access and timeliness in veterans’ medical care.

“Our vision of a long-term VA system is one of private sector and public sector partnerships,” he said. “If we don’t build the capability today that we’re going to need 40 years from now, when the Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans turn 65, we’re not going to have it.”

Dent said VA’s request is not the only potential funding increase getting close scrutiny on Capitol Hill. He charged that all the president’s non-defense spending plans are “built on a house of cards” and said lawmakers have no desire to raise taxes to pay for more domestic programs of questionable need.

“Your budget request and those of all non-defense agencies face a high hurdle this year,” he said.

Lawmakers agreed upon a two-year spending deal last fall that totals $1.07 trillion in federal spending for fiscal 2017 but avoided stricter budget caps for the Pentagon and non-defense programs.

Leaders in both chambers have publicly stated their desire to quickly pass budget legislation this year, but could delay final details until a new president is elected and inaugurated into office.

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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