The administration’s proposed increase to the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) budget would fund legislative wins from MOAA and our advocacy partners, including victories related to Agent Orange benefits.
As part of the VA’s proposed budget increase, the VBA budget grew by 8.2% to $6.9 billion, with oversight of another $152.7 billion (a 10.8% increase) on mandatory spending to cover compensation and pension, readjustment, housing, and insurance programs. This funding comes in addition to other funding sources the VA received to respond to the pandemic.
One of many victories from last year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was the addition of three conditions – hypothyroidism, bladder cancer, and Parkinsonism – to the list of illnesses presumed connected to Agent Orange. VA announced it soon will begin processing these claims, and the VBA’s budget proposal for 2022 provides an increase of $3 billion in obligations, with an estimated $2.2 billion in retroactive payments to support veterans and survivors.
The VA requested 334 more full-time employees to help process these toxic exposure claims, to include many claims of so-called “Blue Water Navy” members who served in the waters off Vietnam. These servicemembers are eligible for benefits dating back to their original claim thanks to a recent court ruling; VA had stopped providing such benefits to these veterans in 2002.
In addition to adding employees to support the Agent Orange claims, the VA has asked for 95 additional employees to support the disability claims backlog resulting from the pandemic-caused suspension in medical exams. While significant progress is being made now that our nation begins to reopen, the additional personnel will certainly help. If appropriated by Congress, the addition of more employees will ensure these long-overdue benefits are distributed.
Along with increasing compensation, VBA’s request to modernize the “Digital GI Bill” was highlighted in the proposal as a major effort. In addition to supplemental funding for the COVID-19 pandemic from the CARES Act, another $81.5 million is targeting upgrades to the VBA’s antiquated technology systems. Improvements to streamline the GI bill process for students and schools are long overdue, and this funding will help create a one-stop online portal.
In addition to improving education benefits, the VBA highlighted a “Disability Employment Pilot Project” budgeted for $3.6 million. This program would help VBA learn how to empower and enable disabled veterans as they seek employment. Along with a research component, the funds will be used to help better integrate across the rest of the VA. Such an effort is essential and gets toward the total-veteran view the department needs to embrace.
The administration’s budget requests are strong indicators of a commitment to continued high-quality care for our veterans in the coming years. The funding of legislative wins for veterans reflects their commitment to implementing these new conditions and programs effectively. We at MOAA will do all we can to work with the VA and Congress to support final passage of an appropriations bill meeting the needs of veterans and honoring their service.
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