Veterans Affairs officials are pleading with Capitol Hill leaders to pass their department's fiscal 2017 budget, reform the benefit appeals process and tackle a host of other top legislative priorities before time runs out on the current congressional session at the end of the year.
In a letter to the leadership of the House and Senate Veterans' Affairs committees on Tuesday, VA Secretary Bob McDonald called adopting the veterans measures "a moral imperative" and added that lawmakers' lack of progress on the issues so far this year is hurting department reform efforts.
"Continued inaction on these critically important initiatives not only negatively impacts VA's transformation, but more importantly, is exceptionally damaging to VA's ability to provide necessary services to our nation's veterans," the letter stated. "Simply put, the time for legislative action is overdue."
None of the issues outlined in the letter are new, but few of the proposals have made any significant progress in Congress since McDonald first outlined them earlier this year. Lawmakers return to Capitol Hill on Tuesday for a few weeks of legislative work before the November elections, then have just a few more weeks in session before the year ends.
"Let me be clear. We have work to do, but we cannot do it alone," McDonald wrote. "We need action from Congress now. We are at a critical tipping point in (VA) transformation where, without action from Congress, the problems and difficulties we are facing in areas that require legislative change are only going to worsen over time.
"It will be veterans and their families and survivors who will suffer the negative impact."
Budget bills have been stalled in Congress for months, and congressional leaders have begun discussing both short-term and long-term continuing resolutions to keep funding flowing through the next few months.
But McDonald said such a move could delay or cut off health access to many veterans relying on program expansions in fiscal 2017, and would halt plans to launch new reform efforts dependent on new funding lines.
He urged lawmakers to find a way to pass a full fiscal 2017 budget, and to adopt new rules simplifying benefits appeals rules. That process averages three years for cases decided by the Veterans Benefits Administration, and five years for cases decided by the Board of Veterans Appeals.
VA officials have said streamlining that system will require congressional permission, and so far no legislation including those ideas has made serious progress in Congress.
In the letter, McDonald also asks for simplification of outside care programs for veterans and updated employment rules for VA workers. That includes an end to rules limiting the federal pay period to 80 hours every two weeks, a cap that frequently causes staffing and scheduling problems at VA medical facilities.
He also asks for help with rules regarding remote medical care options for veterans and assistance on initiatives to help homeless veterans.
Much of the conversation on Capitol Hill in recent months has focused not on those issues but instead on accountability, and whether VA officials have done enough to punish problematic employees. Follow @LeoShane
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at