Veterans Affairs programs would see a hefty funding boost in fiscal 2021 under plans advanced by House appropriators on Monday, continuing the trend in recent years of increased money for the department despite modest growth or cuts for other federal agencies.
The plan, which echoes requested funding increases from the White House earlier this year, still must survive negotiations with the Senate later this year before it can become law.
That work will be complicated by the looming election and budget fights over unrelated agencies, as well as language in the budget measure barring the president from transferring military construction dollars for construction of his controversial southern border wall project.
But members of the House Appropriations Committee on Monday night praised the nearly $240 billion VA budget – which includes about $105 billion in discretionary spending for the department next fiscal year, an increase of about 13 percent from current spending levels.
“In the midst of a global pandemic, we are making unprecedented investments in our veterans through our VA medical system to ensure that every veteran has access to the top-notch health care that they deserve,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., chairwoman of the committee’s panel on veterans issues.
“(This bill) includes historic spending for women veterans, mental health, suicide prevention, medical research, and homeless prevention, while closely monitoring VA claims processing and system modernizations.”
To avoid conflicts with federal budget caps, the discretionary funding increases — which cover a host of medical, transition and ongoing support programs — are designated under the plan as emergency funding.
Of the $105 billion, about $90 billion is set aside for VA medical care. That includes $10.3 billion in funding for mental health care, an increase of more than 9 percent from fiscal 2020, and $661 million for women’s health programs, an increase of 11 percent from the current year.
Lawmakers also included $1.9 billion for homelessness assistance programs targeting veterans, about $40 million above what the president requested.
Another $2.6 billion will be set aside for the department’s ongoing electronic health record modernization project. On Tuesday, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said that several sites in northwest states would begin implementing those new record systems later this fall.
Wilkie praised the committee’s actions following the Monday vote but also noted that department officials do not expect the significant funding increases to continuing indefinitely into the future.
“We’re experiencing all-time budget highs,” he said. “As part of our comprehensive approach, we have to have a closer relationship with DOD … to see how we can pool our resource.”
The full appropriations committee is expected to vote on the full federal budget proposal later this week.
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.