The fiscal 2020 budget deal finalized by Congress on Thursday will give the Department of Veterans Affairs another hefty funding increase next year.
The $1.4 trillion budget deal, which avoids a partial government shutdown until at least next fall, includes nearly $217 billion for VA operations, matching the White House’s request for veterans program operations. The total is more than a 9 percent boost for the department, significantly more than most other federal agencies.
That’s the largest budget in VA history, and continues a nearly 20-year run of significant spending hikes in the department. In fiscal 2001, the VA budget totaled about $45 billion. In fiscal 2011, it was about $125 billion.
Congress has a long-awaited 2020 spending deal that contains a windfall for the Defense Department.
Those increases have caused concerns among fiscal conservatives on Capitol Hill, but not actual public opposition to the VA spending increases.
In an interview with Military Times in November, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said his officials are working to ensure they money is being spent efficiently and effectively but “I haven’t heard anybody get up and say publicly ‘enough is enough’ with the VA budget.”
Mandatory spending on medical benefits and disability claims amounts to almost three-fifths of all VA spending for next fiscal year. Discretionary spending alone, which totals $92 billion, is increasing about 6 percent from fiscal 2019 levels.
The bill includes $80.2 billion for the Veterans Health Administration, including $9.4 billion for mental health services, $222 million for suicide prevention outreach, $585 for gender-specific care for women and $300 million in rural health initiatives.
Lawmakers included $125 million extra for processing disability claims from “blue water” Navy veterans, whose cases will begin being processed on Jan. 1. That money is designed to help hire new staff and pay for overtime work, not to cover the estimated $6 billion cost of awarding the benefits over the next decade.
Congressional leaders warned VA officials not to assume the budget will grow unchecked, especially given recent concerns.
The bill matches the administration’s request of $1.8 billion for homeless veterans assistance programs. Another $1.5 billion was included for continued work on a new electronic health record system for the department, part of a decade-long effort to develop a shared record system with the Defense Department.
Lawmakers approved roughly $9 billion for medical care outside the VA system as outlined in the Mission Act, a measure passed earlier this year which consolidated a host of community care programs under a single, new system.
However, they also included language stressing “the importance of VA continuing to fully fund, fully staff, and appropriately maintain its healthcare facilities,” even with the new outside care tools.
VA officials have said they need to both build up their existing system and rely on community partners to fully meet the health care needs of veterans, but critics have accused them of trying to push too many veterans care cases into the private sector.
President Donald Trump is expected to sign the measure into law before midnight on Friday. If he opts not to finalize the budget bills, it would trigger a partial government shutdown.
Like most other government departments, VA has been operating on short-term budget extensions since the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1. Unlike other departments, VA receives much of its budget a year in advance, to isolate veterans care and support programs from congressional infighting.
In keeping with that approach, the new budget bill also includes $87.6 billion in advance appropriations for veterans medical care in fiscal 2021.