When the White House unveiled its 2012 budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs earlier this week, I had high hopes since it was Valentine's Day. And while chocolates might be appropriate for loved ones, the challenges and increased demand facing the federal department tasked with serving America's 23 million veterans would require significant resources.
My first reaction to the Obama administration's numbers was that they are good and bad but not ugly.
First the good. There is actually much to like in this budget. In the area of total medical care, the administration actually exceeded our expectations by $4.3. billion. The $54 billion in this area will go a long way to preserve, and indeed, improve the best health care system available anywhere.
Overall, the $132 billion budget marks a 4 percent increase over the administration's 2011 budget, which still has not been approved by Congress. Federal spending is currently being funded by continuing resolution, meaning that the Obama administration's request for VA actually is a 10.6 percent increase over 2010 levels.
Now the bad. There are some very important construction projects that VA needs in order to serve the 6.2 million veterans who are expected to use their facilities next year. We find the cuts in major and minor construction for these facilities to be unacceptable. During my congressional testimony last fall, I submitted recommendations of $1.2 billion for major construction and $800 million for minor construction. The administration budget includes only $590 million and $550 million in those respective areas, well short of what is needed.
Moreover, Congress needs to immediately approve the $208 million allotted by the administration to fund the veterans' caregivers program. These caregivers have often forfeited their working careers in order to provide care for their disabled family member. Not only must they experience the sorrow of watching their loved one return from war less than whole, they have tried to survive without the financial security and health insurance that they enjoyed prior to the injury.
The law authorizing the caregiver program was signed last May and it was supposed to be implemented in January 2011. I understand that it takes time to publish regulations and complete training, but VA needs to get the program fully up and running without further delay.
There are many complex areas of the VA budget that The American Legion will be commenting on during the coming year. Whether it's providing the best treatment for Traumatic Brain Injury, helping VA Secretary Eric Shinseki fulfill his promise to end veterans homelessness in the next few years or properly funding the National Cemetery Administration, The American Legion will continue to work with the administration and Congress to best serve the needs of veterans.
In an era of skyrocketing debt and politicians trying to one-up each other over budget cuts, The American Legion is aware that sacrifices must be made. However, America's veterans have already sacrificed blood, sweat and sometimes their lives just so we could have these debates.