Veterans Affairs officials will create a new office focused on diversity and harassment prevention under the White House’s fiscal 2022 budget plan unveiled Friday, which also includes significant funding boosts for improving mental health care and ending homelessness.
The total budget request of nearly $270 billion would be an increase of more than 10 percent over current year spending levels and an 9 percent increase in discretionary funding ($117.2 billion) for the department.
It represents another significant boost for a department which has seen steady budget growth over the last two decades. In fiscal 2001, the VA budget totaled about $45 billion. By fiscal 2011, it was about $125 billion, almost triple that total. Ten years later, in 2021, the department’s budget was nearly double that again, at $245 billion.
That total does not include an additional proposed $18 billion under President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan, much of that for infrastructure improvements at VA medical centers throughout the country.
In a statement, White House officials said the spending plan “will ensure VA is moving swiftly and smartly into the future, with much-needed monetary investments in our most successful and vital programs.”
It also includes the creation of a new Office of Resolution Management, Diversity, and Inclusion.
Both Biden and VA Secretary Denis McDonough have vowed to make VA programs more inclusive to minority and women veterans. Officials said that the new agency would oversee department diversity programs and create “a robust harassment prevention program” in response to concerns about sexual misconduct policies for the department.
The department has come under intense criticism in recent years for a series of sexual misconduct scandals. In 2018, a report from the Government Accountability Office found that about one on four women working at VA reported experiencing sexual harassment or abuse, and one in three employees said they witnessed an act of sexual misconduct.
Last year, dozens of Democratic lawmakers and veterans advocates demanded the resignation of then VA Secretary Robert Wilkie over his mishandling of a sexual abuse complaint from a congressional staffer while she visited the Washington, D.C. VA Medical Center.
Biden and McDonough have promised “zero tolerance” for such incidents. The new office would also oversee the implementation of several new diversity and anti-harassment initiatives approved by Congress in recent months.
On the medical side, the budget plan calls for mental health care spending to rise significantly next year, up about 13.5 percent to more than $10.7 billion. Suicide prevention outreach specifically would almost double, from about $287 million this year to a proposed $598 million in fiscal 2021.
Suicide prevention has been a top priority at the department in each of the last three presidential administrations, but the rate of suicide (about 17 veterans a day) has remained frustratingly steady over the last decade despite increased financial resources.
Homelessness prevention and support programs would grow 14.5 percent under the plan, topping $2.6 billion. Federal officials estimated about 37,000 veterans are experiencing homelessness on any given night, a figure that is half the level of a decade ago but up slightly in recent years.
Gender specific care spending would also rise in the budget proposal, about 12 percent to over $700 million.
Caregiver stipend payment costs are expected to up by nearly a third next year, as more veterans are added to the program.
In fiscal 2020, when the program was open only to veterans who served after Sept. 11, spending on the program was about $500 million. Now that the program has been expanded to include veterans who served before 1973, spending is expected to surpass $1.5 billion in fiscal 2022.
Lawmakers are expected to debate the budget proposal over coming months, with a goal of passing a final version by the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1. However, this White House budget plan is the latest arriving in history, likely pushing final passage of the spending plan to later in the year.
The VA budget is not seen as a highly controversial topic in Congress, even with the significant funding increases in recent years. But approval of the department’s budget has been stalled several times in recent years because of unrelated spending fights among lawmakers.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.