POTUS Delivers Generous VA Budget

May 26, 2017

This year's budget process and legislative course has been unique, to say the least. 

We started the year with a new Congressional session as new members took their seats on Capitol Hill Jan. 3. 

Soon thereafter, Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the U.S. Jan. 20.

In recent years, the first week of February marked the arrival of the president's budget proposal.

However, Trump entered office under a continuing resolution as a result of the last Congress extending the FY 2016 budget to the end of April 2017. The 2017 budget eventually was signed into law May 5, seven months into the 2017 fiscal year, giving federal agencies a very short time to spend their funds by September, the end of the fiscal year.

But unlike DoD, the VA gets its funding through a separate funding vehicle called the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (MILCON-VA) Appropriations Act. 

And while the VA's funding is determined through the annual appropriations process just like other agencies, funds also are allocated for one additional fiscal year. Congress allocates funds beyond the current budget cycle to allow continuous funding between fiscal years so veterans continue to get the uninterrupted, critical health and benefits they rely on. 

The FY 2017 MILCON-VA appropriations was signed Sept. 29, 2016. The VA was the only federal agency to go into the fiscal year with funding for both 2017 and advance funding for 2018. Congress authorized the VA $176.89 billion for 2017 - $102.53 billion in mandatory funding and $74.36 billion in discretionary funding.

Then, March 16, Trump released his “ skinny budget,” giving a preview of his plans for defense and nondefense discretionary funding for FY 2018. The president requested $78.9 billion in discretionary funding in the budget blueprint, $4.4 billion over the VA's 2017 budget. Additionally, the president requested $3.5 billion in mandatory spending to continue the Veterans Choice Program.

This week, the administration delivered to Congress its official FY 2018 budget, which generously beefs up VA funding. The budget proposal provides significantly more details on funding than Trump's earlier skinny version.

MOAA, a number of other veterans' and military service organizations, and Congress learned more about the 2018 budget from the VA's secretary at a briefing on Tuesday when the budget was rolled out, then again on Wednesday at a House Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing.

At first glance, the administration's proposal is a generous increase in the VA's budget, supporting the president's vision and commitment to veterans and their families through continued transformation and delivery of high quality health care and benefits. 

In fact, at the Wednesday House budget hearing, Chairman Phil Roe (R-Tex.) praised the president and the secretary for their leadership and commitment to veterans. 

“I am pleased President Trump's budget request includes one of the largest increases in funding for veterans in a decade,” said Roe. “With that said, we've seen that simply increasing the VA's bottom line seldom results in better services for veterans. … It's time for VA to take a hard look at how they utilize resources and make tough decisions necessary to preserve veterans' benefits.”

Trump requested $186.5 billion total for the VA, a $6.4 billion increase over 2017 appropriations. Of that total, $82.1 billion was discretionary funding (slightly higher than his skinny budget request and 5.5 percent above 2017) for mostly health care programs, and $104.3 billion in mandatory funding for disability compensation and pensions, including funding to continue the Veterans Choice Program.

Additionally, for FY 2019, advance appropriations for medical care is projected to be $1.7 billion and $107.7 billion for mandatory programs above what was allocated in the 2017 MILCON-VA budget for FY 2018. 

Here are some improvements the FY 2018 budget would buy for VA health care:

  • expand access to community care;
  • long-term care;
  • mental health care;
  • programs for homeless and at-risk veterans;
  • Hepatitis-C treatment;
  • treatment for traumatic brain injuries; and
  • gender-specific health care services for women.

Benefits

While a generous budget, increased access to community care through the Choice Program comes at the cost of cuts to some veterans' benefits, which include:

  • Capping Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit for some flight training programs to curb excessive costs at certain public schools that offer courses through contracts with private institutions.
  • Rounding down COLAs to the nearest dollar for disability compensation payments, reinstating an earlier practice in existence for nearly 15 years, up until 2013. The VA expects an individual veteran to pay no more than $12 a year as a result of this change.
  • Stopping disability compensation benefits to veterans receiving individual unemployability benefit payments once they are eligible for social security benefits. The administration sees the unemployability payment as a duplication of a federal benefit. 225,000 veterans are receiving the benefit today. 

Congressman Mark Takano (D-Calif.) challenged the secretary on the individual unemployability issue.

“I am concerned about the proposal to terminate the individual unemployability benefit at age 62 for veterans,” said Takano. “Most of the savings for this [VA] budget comes from this proposal - paying for the Choice program by ending a benefit to a veteran who is unable to be gainfully employed or who is unable to pay into social security or other retirement saving. … If you end the unemployability payment, don't you risk plunging veterans into poverty by shutting off the benefit?” He cited more than 7,000 veterans over the age of 82 receiving the benefit today. 

Shulkin responded by saying he was very sensitive to the issue, but “I also have a responsibility to make sure our current mandatory programs are managed the right way. … At age 62, veterans have access to other funds like social security - this change is necessary to make the program more responsible.” 

MOAA does not support this portion of the proposed budget. “This change would be devastating to older, disabled veterans. It is nearly unconscionable to terminate benefits they depend upon for their very livelihood,” stated Lt. Col. Aniela Szymanski, USMCR, MOAA's director of government relations for veterans benefits. 

MOAA President and CEO Lt. Gen. Dana T. Atkins, USAF (Ret), called on Congress to find better ways to fund the Choice Program and still protect the benefits of other veterans. MOAA also historically has opposed a cost of living “round down” to the nearest dollar, as was proposed in this budget for VA COLAs. 

The budget proposal also included increased funding to the Board of Veterans' Appeals in anticipation of the new disability claims processing system Congress is currently considering. VA officials explained the increased funding would be used to hire more employees at the board to both implement the new system and make progress on the current backlog of appeals. The appeals modernization legislation passed the House and advanced out of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs this week. The full Senate is planning to vote in June.

From MOAA's perspective, there are still many hurdles to overcome before the budget is approved. 

There are already a few hundred veteran bills on the docket Congress needs to consider and more are expected in the coming weeks. Authorizers and appropriators must also agree on what to do about reforming VA health care, replacing the Choice Program, fixing the disability and appeals system, and building in more system accountability across the VA before anything is ready to head to the president's desk for his signature. 

With a few short months left in the fiscal year, and considering all the other competing national and international priorities, it will be tough to get it all done.

If there is anything to be sure of, it's that we will end up in a very different place from where we started the year. You also can count on MOAA keeping you up to date on how things progress over the next several months.

 

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