On Friday, President Donald Trump signed off on the largest-ever federal budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs. The president says the money will aid crucial VA reforms. Meanwhile, Democratic members of Congress are concerned that the measure is a just a Band-Aid.
Leo Shane covers Congress, veterans affairs and the White House for Military Times. He says the new VA budget tops $200 billion, $85 billion of which funds VA programs, with the rest covering mandatory benefits for service members and retirees.
“This number is one lawmakers have been eyeing for years, saying this is a number that just keeps growing – not out of control, but very rapidly,” Shane says.
The VA budget has grown substantially since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Shane says.
“The entire budget back then was around $49 billion,” he says. “We’re over just about four times that amount, over the span of these wars.”
Shane says the increased funds will cover care for veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and also the care of veterans of the Vietnam and Korean Wars, whose physical and psychological wounds are being addressed belatedly.
Shane says the VA budget stalled this summer as lawmakers fought over the VA Mission Act, which allows veterans to obtain care in their community, rather than from VA facilities, if they wish.
“There’s money associated with that, and there’s a gap of about $1.75 billion that needed to be filled in,” he says. “And Republicans and Democrats on the Hill fought over how to do that.”
For now, lawmakers solved the problem by shifting money around within the larger VA budget. But Democrats warn that the gap between funding and need will grow next year. They want a more durable solution to the problem.
For the VA, which has faced many issues in recent years, Shane says things are looking up. Customer satisfaction ratings from veterans are up, and wait times for care are down. Shane credits Trump with some accomplishments in getting beyond the VA’s problems, including passage of the new budget. On the other hand, Trump fired his first Secretary of Veterans Affairs a few months ago, and Shane says veterans remain wary.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.