WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs would see a 6 percent boost in programming funds under the fiscal 2018 budget outlined by President Trump, one of only a few federal agencies given a plus-up in his funding plan.
Discretionary spending would reach $78.9 billion "so that VA can continue to meet the ever-growing demand for health care services while building an integrated system of care that strengthens services within VA and makes effective use of community services," according to Trump's budget plan released Thursday.
The VA saw hefty increases in its budget annually under former President Barack Obama, but Trump came into office promising more fiscal discipline and a strong focus on eliminating federal waste and redundancy.
But he has also repeatedly promised to "fully fund" the Department of Veterans Affairs, saying he wants to reverse years of what he sees as bad treatment of veterans.
The proposed budget for next fiscal year — which faces numerous legislative hurdles before it can become law — includes $3.5 billion in mandatory budget authority to continue the controversial Veterans Choice Program, which allows veterans to receive private medical care if they face lengthy wait times for VA care or significant travel obstacles to visit VA facilities.
VA Secretary David Shulkin in recent weeks has called an extension of the program critical to veterans health, but has also promised to outline plans in the coming months to reform the Choice program and simplify its operations.
Trump's budget plan also provides $4.6 billion in new funding "for VA health care to improve patient access and timeliness of medical care services for over nine million enrolled veterans," but offered few specifics on what that will entail.
White House officials also said the budget supports VA programs to end homelessness among veterans, but offered no further budgetary breakdowns. Trump's larger plan includes ending all funding to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, a move which could have an adverse impact on the homeless veterans goals.
And the plan "invests in information technology to improve the efficiency and efficacy of VA services," a promise that department officials have been repeating for years, but with mixed results.
The initial budget release includes only top-line numbers for federal spending, with implementation details left to department officials. It also contains none of the policy changes that will likely accompany later drafts, including new accountability and firing rules for the VA.
Only the VA, Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security would see significant increases under Trump’s proposed budget. Combined, the three would see almost $60 billion in new spending over fiscal 2017 levels (defense spending is $52 billion of that).
To make up for those boosts, other agencies would see dramatic cuts. State Department funding would drop almost $11 billion from fiscal 2017 levels (29 percent), and the Department of Health and Human Services funding would drop more than $15 billion (18 percent).
Several agencies would be completely cut off from government funds, including the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Before Congress can weigh in on the fiscal 2018 budget, they have to finish the fiscal 2017 one. While VA programs were fully funded by lawmakers last fall for the current fiscal year, most departments have been operating on a continuing budget resolution set to expire at the end of April.
If lawmakers can’t reach a deal by then, it will trigger a partial government shutdown. But since VA funding has already been approved, most veterans services should continue unaffected.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.