Despite years of significant budget increases, the Department of Veterans Affairs will need billions in additional funding in fiscal 2023 to keep pace with the health care and support services needs of veterans and their families, according to a new report released by advocacy groups today.

The Independent Budget — an advisory spending plan compiled by Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Veterans of Foreign Wars — calls for a 23 percent increase in VA program spending over the latest White House request in order to boost money for priorities like mental health services, caregiver support, and homeless veterans assistance.

The figure is likely to draw concerns from lawmakers who have grumbled about the ever-rising VA budget in recent funding cycles.

In fiscal 2001, the entire VA budget totaled about $45 billion. By fiscal 2011, it was about $125 billion, almost triple that total. Ten years later, in 2021, the department’s budget was nearly double that again, at $245 billion.

The White House budget request for fiscal 2022 — which began last October — sits at $270 billion. Lawmakers have not yet approved a full-year budget for the department, but are expected to advance discussion on that issue in coming weeks.

The administration’s fiscal 2023 budget plan for VA is expected to be released sometime next month.

Authors of the Independent Budget said their calls for even more VA money next year aren’t wishful thinking but a real assessment of the challenges ahead for the department.

“As we enter into 2022, COVID’s impact remains a challenge for VA, with the spread of the virus and disruptions to health care systems continuing,” said Randy Reese, executive director of DAV’s Washington Headquarters.

“In this environment, we made cautious recommendations based on historical trends to ensure the needs of our nation’s ill and injured veterans are met.”

Under the Independent Budget plan, VA officials would see a $1.8 billion boost to health programs to “close the gap in clinical care” at department medical centers.

“The lack of adequate health care staffing has been a major driver of longer waiting times for veterans seeking VA care, and ultimately has the effect of suppressing the true level of veterans’ demand for care,” the report states. “It also forces many veterans who would prefer to receive their care from VA providers into community care providers.”

The groups also want to add $490 million above the pending White House request for caregiver support programs, $395 million more for homeless veterans’ programs, and $288 million more for mental health services and suicide prevention efforts.

The advisory budget also calls for an extra $3.8 billion for major and minor construction programs — an issue that the groups have been pushing for years, but one that has largely gone unanswered in White House budget plans.

The Independent Budget focuses only on discretionary spending, and not mandated increases in benefits that federal planners must account for in their own fiscal plans.

As such, the document isn’t an exact blueprint of what the final VA budget proposal would look like, but it does serve as an important point of discussion for lawmakers as they enter their annual budget debates.

The authors noted their proposal is a snapshot of future VA needs at this moment, but lawmakers need to be wary of the ever-changing nature of the pandemic as they conduct their budget debates.

Given the uncertainty surrounding VA’s future resource needs, Congress and the Administration must regularly review and be prepared to adjust funding levels whenever necessary to ensure VA has sufficient resources to care for our nation’s veterans,” the report states.

The full recommendations are available on the group’s website.

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.

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