For veterans advocates, 2014 was a year of scandals and crises at the Veterans Affairs Department. Now, those outside groups want 2015 to be a year of fixing all the other pressing problems that have been ignored.
On Thursday, the four leading veterans groups behind the annual "independent VA budget" released their policy priorities for the new congressional session, a 124-page document that covers a host of coming problems for the community and existing headaches they have been lamenting for years.
"We've argued for a while that the department has been underfunded," said Carl Blake, associate executive director for Paralyzed Veterans of America. "We're seeing these problems compound over time. The dollars are just not growing at the same rate as the demand."
The coalition's top priorities include fixing VA's wait time problems, eliminating its benefit claims backlog, addressing growing VA infrastructure problems, expanding caregiver programs to veterans of all eras, and making sure female veterans have adequate health care and support services.
They are ambitious goals, but not new complaints from the veterans community. Coalition members are hoping that the new emphasis can help capitalize on congressional momentum from last year, when VA's wait times scandals not only drew lawmakers' attention but prompted legislative action as well.
Last spring, revelations that veterans were facing lengthy delays to get medical appointments led to investigations into records manipulation by VA supervisors and eventually the resignation of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
Lawmakers responded with more than $16 billion in funding for new private care options for veterans and new appointment space for VA physicians. Blake said advocates have been watching VA's response warily, acknowledging improvements but also seeing reasons for concern about the slow pace of change.
"We wouldn't be so naive to say VA has already fixed the problem," he said.
Coalition officials want more funding for staff hiring and appointment space, and for lawmakers to ensure that problem employees are held accountable, to ensure similar problems won't resurface.
Joe Violante, national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, said coalition officials also are concerned with the lingering claims backlog problems, and whether VA will be able to meet its stated goal of zeroing out the overdue cases by the end of 2015.
He also said advocates will push lawmakers to keep a close eye on VA's claims appeals, which have grown steadily in recent years.
Construction projects have made headlines recently because of dramatic cost overruns and missed completion deadlines, but the new recommendations also point to an aging infrastructure for the department that may need as much as $55 billion in new funding to adequately catch up to system demand.
Coalition members said they hope the policy recommendations are not only a challenge to lawmakers already conducting VA oversight but also an education tool for members of Congress who have not closely followed veterans issues in the past.
The veterans coalition — which includes Veterans of Foreign Wars and Amvets along with PVA and DAV — will release specific budget recommendations next month, at the same time that the White House's fiscal 2016 budget proposal is unveiled.