The Veterans Affairs Department's budget plan for health care next year would boost spending on mental health treatment and services, caregiver programs and health care for female veterans.

The budget request for fiscal 2016, which starts Oct. 1, includes $56 billion in spending for veterans health care as well as $63.3 billion in advance funding for 2017. That advance funding is included each year in the VA spending plan to protect the health budget in the event of a government shutdown.

The funding includes $7.2 billion to improve mental health treatment in the primary care setting as well as provide "more intensive interventions in specialty mental health programs" for severe or chronic mental health disorders.

It also provides $598 million for continued construction and improvement projects and $36 million to improve customer service programs for online access and call centers.

The department expects to have 9.4 million veterans enrolled in VA health care in the coming year, including 1.4 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

Along with increasing funding for its brick-and-mortar hospital operations, the proposal includes more money — totalling $1.2 billion — for telehealth technologies to increase access to medical care for veterans with chronic conditions who live in remote or rural areas, and $446 million for women's health programs, an increase of 8.3 percent.

While the spending request is substantial, the budget proposal also warns that more resources will be needed to ensure that the VA health system continues to provide quality health care.

Noting that the Veterans Choice Act put aside $5 billion in mandatory funding to hire more physicians and staff and improve infrastructure, as well as $10 billion for the Veterans Choice program, designed to improve access to health care by allowing veterans to be seen in civilian health care settings, VA officials said more investments will be needed.

President Obama did not specify where the additional funding is needed but said his administration will submit legislation in coming months to ensure the VA can continue to make "essential investments."

The Senate is set to vote this week on a bill designed to improve veterans' access to mental health care, the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans bill, by increasing incentives to draw qualified physicians to work at VA and create a peer support program to better serve veterans.

Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.

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