Administration officials this year are re-upping a series of reforms to the veterans disability system they estimate would cut down on tens of thousands of unneeded medical exams and save billions of dollars.
The moves, part of President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2020 budget unveiled earlier this month, call for revising rules regarding medical exams for veterans applying for benefits. The idea was discussed — though ultimately ignored — by Congress last year.
But the new savings estimates around the plan could draw renewed interest this session.
In last year’s budget, VA officials estimated the moves would cut about $80 million in spending annually, and nearly $1.2 billion over the next decade. This budget cycle, they’ve raised that estimate to about $250 million annually and nearly $2.7 billion by fiscal 2029.
VA spokesman Curt Cashour said the change reflects a larger number of exams and rising health care costs. A steady increase in benefits claims combined with more complex and expensive exams translates into larger savings if the reforms are enacted.
Those reforms amount to “establishing a more reasonable policy in determining when a VA examination is warranted in connection with a claim for compensation,” according to the budget documents.
Administration officials argue that court rulings on the veterans disability process have shown that current VA medical standards for benefits are excessive compared to the legal evidence needed to establish eligibility.
Many check-ups, reexaminations and VA appointments duplicating private-sector medical evaluations could be cut, saving veterans time and the federal government money. VA estimates that more than 180,000 unnecessary medical appointments were conducted in 2016 and more than 210,000 in 2017, a small but significant portion of the department’s workload.
The reforms package also includes changing disability compensation benefits to remove annual income from the eligibility calculation, a move that could increase the number of eligible beneficiaries but also save time and staff in calculating those payouts.
“This helps VA standardize the calculation and potentially automate payments, allowing veterans to get payments faster,” the budget document stated.
Administration officials are also pushing a more controversial cost-savings plan of rounding down veterans’ cost-of-living payouts to the nearest dollar, a plan that has sparked fierce opposition from veterans groups and some lawmakers in recent years.
Whether the controversy surrounding that plan derails the other proposed reforms will be the focus of congressional debate in coming months.
Trump has proposed a $216 billion budget for fiscal 2020, an increase of more than 9 percent from this year’s levels. The VA budget has grown steadily over the last 18 years, more than quadrupling from fiscal 2001.
But Trump’s overall budget plan faces significant opposition in Congress from Democrats, who have attacked his proposed large increases in defense spending and steep cuts in funding for the Departments of State, Education, and other domestic programs.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.