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The White House may be late in preparing its 2014 budget request, but a powerful collection of veterans groups unveiled their own plan Tuesday for a $4.8 billion increase in veterans health care, benefits administration, construction and medical research funds.
Prepared by four groups — Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America and AmVets — the so-called Independent Budget is endorsed by 45 military, veterans and charitable organizations and will be used as a benchmark to decide if the Obama administration's Veterans Affairs Department budget request for 2014 is adequate. This is the 27th such budget sent to the White House and Congress.
Veterans are asking for a $3.3 billion increase for health care over the 2013 budget, $1.2 billion more than the Obama administration estimated would be needed for medical programs. In their report detailing the request, the groups say there are several reasons for what amounts to a 6 percent increase: They expect an influx of new veterans, some severely disabled and some needing care as a result of reductions in the active-duty military, and they also anticipate more veterans may turn to VA as the cost of private-sector health care spirals, the report says.
The budget also asks for a 4.8 percent increase for medical and prosthetic research, a 10.4 percent increase in benefits administration aimed at speeding the processing and accuracy of benefits claims, and a whopping 77 percent increase in construction funds to pay for what the report says are desperately needed and overdue projects.
In a statement, VFW National Commander John Hamilton said VA has been getting "less than half" of what it needs to modernize facilities. "Just as disabled veterans require more medical assistance as they age, so do VA medical facilities that average more than 60 years old.
"Though we have yet to see what the administration is proposing for fiscal year 2014, we fear the weak economy will again influence what the administration requests for major and minor construction," he said.
The report urges continued attention to helping new veterans find jobs. "With more than 800,000 unemployed veterans, and nearly 12 percent of recent veterans searching for work, now is the time for this administration and Congress to stand up for our heroes and ensure they are able to provide for themselves and their families," said AMVETS National Commander Cleve Geer.
Employment programs have been mentioned as a legislative priority by the chairmen of the House and Senate veterans' affairs committees and are expected to be discussed at hearings in February and March when military and veterans groups are invited to testify before the two panels.
Another issue that won't go away is the backlog of benefits claims. The report says VA has spent enough time looking at ways to improve the process and should be pushed to implement transformative technology and policies before the end of the calendar year. More staff to process claims might help, the report says, but the groups do not recommend any specific increase.
DAV National Commander Larry Polzin said he is encouraged by VA's claims efforts. "We look forward to continued progress in improved accuracy and timeliness," he said, "but uncertainty about funding for VA could have far-reaching consequences for our nation's injured and ill veterans and their families."