Veterans

Advocates worry planned VA budget hikes aren't enough

The Veterans Affairs Department budget keeps going up, but it's still not enough, outside advocates say.

A coalition of veterans groups praised President Obama's fiscal 2016 budget request for VA programs after it was released Monday, but said the plan still falls more than $1 billion short of what the department truly needs to keep up with the demands on the system.

"They're going in the right direction, but there are still a lot of things that need to be fixed," said Joe Violante, national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans and one of the author's of this year's veterans "independent budget."

"This administration has tried to give VA the resources it needs. But I don't know if they're always on the mark," he said.

The independent budget calls for $74.5 billion in discretionary VA spending for fiscal 2016, which would be more than a 9 percent jump from last year in nonmandatory department spending. VA has proposed slightly less than an 8 percent increase in that funding.

The groups behind the independent budget — DAV, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Paralyzed Veterans of America and AMVETS — see shortfalls in health care spending, staffing for benefits processing and major construction efforts.

Last month, they highlighted all three of those areas as major legislative issues facing VA, noting that the shortfall in major construction alone could reach tens of billions of dollars within a decade if funding isn't made available now.

Violante noted the sharp increase in VA funding over the last decade — the department's total budget has risen by almost $100 billion since 2004 — and praised Obama for steady increases in each of his years in the White House.

But he also said coalition members will push lawmakers to go even further, especially in light of VA deficiencies exposed during last year's patient wait times scandal.

Lawmakers last summer provided about $17 billion in emergency funding to VA officials to hire new physicians and expand private care options. But they also promised closer oversight of VA's budget request this year, to ensure that the new money wasn't simply plugging holes caused by waste and inefficiencies.

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