White House plan increases VA budget

The Veterans Affairs Department would see almost an 8 percent jump in discretionary spending and a $9 billion overall increase in its budget under plans outlined by the White House on Monday.

If adopted by Congress, the budget plan would continue the steady rise in VA program spending since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2004, the total VA budget was just under $64 billion, more than $100 billion less than the fiscal 2016 request.

The budget plan includes money to continue the Veterans Choice Card program approved by Congress last summer, in response to the patient-wait-times scandal that forced the resignation of several top department officials.

VA officials have about $15 billion in funding through 2017 for those private care visits and physician hiring. But administration budget planners warned that "more resources in certain areas will be required to ensure that the VA system can provide timely, high-quality health care into the future."

The White House promised to offer new, long-term budget legislation for VA programs in coming months, to allow "essential investments in VA system priorities in a fiscally responsible, budget-neutral manner."

The budget plan calls for $7.5 billion in mental health spending, $7.5 billion in long-term care programs and $2.8 billion in prosthetics research and development.

VA officials would spend $431 million more under the plan in an effort to end the department's claims backlog, including continued development of digital processing systems and conversion of paper records to electronic files.

And the department wants to spend $1.4 billion in fiscal 2016 for programs to prevent and reduce homelessness among veterans. The department has a stated public goal of ending that problem nationwide before next January, just three months into the new fiscal year.

The budget request calls for an 8.3 percent increase in health care services specifically for women ($446 million total), an area where both VA officials and outside groups have said the department needs to adapt to a changing veterans population.

And the measure includes a separate $66.6 billion request for advance medical care appropriations for fiscal 2017, designed to prevent political fiscal fights from disrupting veterans health care services.

In a statement, VA Secretary Bob McDonald called the budget plan "one of the greatest opportunities in [department] history" for helping veterans.

"We are listening to what veterans, Congress, employees, veterans service organizations and other stakeholders are telling us," he said. "We aspire to make VA a model agency that is held up as an example for other government agencies to follow with respect to customer experience, efficient and effective operations, and taxpayer stewardship."

Lawmakers will spend the next several months debating the request and grilling officials over the growing department budget.

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