House appropriators appear poised to give Veterans Affairs Department officials almost everything they want in next year's budget, but lingering concerns about administrative mismanagement could trim a few billion dollars from the bottom line.
The subcommittee charged with overseeing VA's fiscal 2016 budget offered its first draft Wednesday, a $163.2 billion plan that would boost department spending by about 2.5 percent above current levels.
The plan — which still must wind through the House and Senate in coming months before becoming law — represents another in a steady line of VA budget hikes since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2004, the total VA budget was just under $64 billion, almost $100 billion less than what the department could spend in fiscal 2016.
Subcommittee chairman Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., touted the outline as a bipartisan agreement "to ensure that our promise to care for those who have sacrificed in defense of this great nation continues as those men and women return home."
It contains $68.7 billion in discretionary funding, a small increase from fiscal 2015 but several billion below what the White House requested.
Most of the difference comes from a steep cut in VA's plan for its construction budget, where appropriators are supporting only about two-thirds of the department's $1.5 billion request.
Dent cited ongoing problems with the Denver VA hospital construction project — now slated to cost $1 billion more than originally estimated — as the reason for that withholding, saying department leaders will have to correct problems with "gross mismanagement" before lawmakers feel comfortable adding more money into those accounts.
Democrats on the panel expressed concerns about the move, but still supported the overall plan.
The legislation also includes language limiting fund transfers between construction projects and limiting changes in the scope of those projects, to prevent similar cost overruns in the future.
The appropriations plan includes $7.5 billion in mental health care services, $6.7 billion in homeless veterans programs, $144 million for suicide prevention activities and $233 million for electronic health records modernization.
It also includes $455 million in funds related to ending the disability claims backlog, with several million set aside to hire 770 new staff to address that ongoing problem.
VA officials have cut the backlog from more than 600,000 cases to fewer than 200,000 over the last two years, but appear behind schedule on their public pledge to reach zero by the end of this year.
The full House Appropriations Committee is expected to vote on the proposal next week. Similar draft legislation is expected from Senate appropriators in coming weeks.