Congress Seeks to Increase VA FY016 Budget Request

Vietnam Veterans of America – Legislative Update
December 16, 2015

Congress will vote today on a short-term spending bill funding the Federal Government until December 22, 2015.

H.R. 2029 entitled the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2016 is no longer a stand along bill because of amendments passsed by the House and Senate. The new bill is now the vehicle for the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016 and the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015 and on Friday, December 18, 2015 the house is expected to vote on H.R. 2029 the $1.1 trillion fiscal 2016 omnibus spending bill funding the government until the end of September 2016.

Will VA funding for FY2016 see an increase in the omnibus spending bill?

In an article today by CQ Roll Call entitled Military Construction-VA: Spending Bill Boosts Plan to Eliminate Backlog of Disability Claims By Connor O’Brien, CQ Roll Call Veterans programs are due for yet another increase— a boost of $6.4 billion in fiscal 2016 discretionary spending — in a full-year spending measure unveiled by appropriators early Wednesday morning.

Overall, the $1.15 trillion discretionary spending package (HR 2029) would allocate $79.9 billion for military construction projects, family housing, base and veterans’ services, an increase of roughly $8 billion from the fiscal 2015 level.

VA discretionary spending would rise to $71.4 billion in addition to $91.3 billion in mandatory funding, mostly for benefits and pensions, bringing the total funding for VA to $162.7 billion.

The spending bill provides $63.3 billion in fiscal 2017 advance appropriations for the medical care accounts of the Veterans Health Administration. The legislation also includes $103 billion in fiscal 2017 advance appropriations for VA’s mandatory compensation and pension programs.

Among its health care funding provisions, the legislation includes $1.5 billion for new Hepatitis C treatments, the cost of which VA cited as partly responsible for a shortfall in its medical care funding over the summer. The bill would appropriate $7.5 billion in fiscal 2016 for veteran’s mental health services and programs as well as a further $7.7 billion for mental health care in fiscal 2017.

Appropriators included $605 million for VA’s Caregiver Program, which clocks in at $50 million over the budget request. Lawmakers also agreed to fund VA’s Office of Rural Health, which aims to reach veterans in areas without immediate access to a VA medical center of clinic, at a level of $270 million.

Under the legislation, the Veterans Benefits Administration — which oversees programs that provide financial assistance to veterans, dependents and survivors — would receive $91.4 billion. Of that total, $76.9 billion would fund pensions and benefits. A further $14.3 billion in VBA funds would be allocated for veterans’ readjustments benefits, including education assistance and vocational training.

The bill includes $2.7 billion for disability claims processing — $173 million more than the fiscal 2015 enacted level — to assist VA in its goal of eliminating a backlog of pending veterans’ claims, which the department had aimed to wipe out by the end of 2015. Of the 366, 684 pending claims as of Dec. 12, 75, 996 — just over 20 percent — had been pending for more than 125 days, the department’s official benchmark for a backlogged claim. The legislation also includes $109.9 million, some $11 million more than allocated in fiscal 2015, for the Board of Veterans Appeals to handle appeals of VA claim rulings.

The legislation includes a familiar limitation on the department’s attempt to mesh its electronic health records with those of the Pentagon. The measure would provide $233 million for the modernization of VA’s electronic health record and efforts to improve interoperability with the Defense Department’s record. Under the bill, however, only 25 percent of funding would be available to the VA until reporting and certification requirements are met.

The bill would provide $8.2 billion for military construction and family housing for active military, reserve and National Guard components, an increase of $1.6 billion from the fiscal 2015 enacted level.

The legislation also would provide $107 million for the American Battle Monuments Commission, $79.5 million for Arlington National Cemetery and $64.3 million for the Armed Forces Retirement Home.

Similar to previous years’ spending bills, the Military Construction appropriations measure would prohibit funds from being used to close the military-run prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba or to construct or renovate a facility in the United States to hold detainees currently being held at Guantánamo.

By Connor O’Brien, CQ Roll

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