American Legion Legislative Director Louis Celli testifies before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. (Photo by Craig Roberts)

VA-leased facilities in jeopardy of closing

The American Legion is imploring Congress to continue funding and operating 15 Department of Veterans Affairs community-based outpatient clinics and other facilities with leases that are soon due to expire.

Addressing the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs at an April 11 hearing focused on VA’s fiscal 2014 budget request, American Legion Legislative Director Louis Celli reminded the committee members in his written testimony that funding for the 15 threatened facilities "has already been obligated, and refusal to fund these centers will cause a false perception of excess monies to exist within the federal budget, which The American Legion is afraid will be falsely reported as a money-saving initiative."

Funding for the facilities was cancelled by Congress last November after a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report mistakenly claimed the expense would be 10 times the actual cost, which resulted from a change in CBO’s scoring process.

Celli told the committee that Congress refused to introduce a fiscal 2013 appropriations bill needed to keep the VA centers open. "As these leases now become due, there are 15 … facilities that will be forced to close unless Congress acts quickly to provide the appropriate funding to these centers," he said. "The American Legion urges Congress to fund these centers immediately and continue to provide the medical support to veterans in these remote areas."

The VA facilities that are currently in jeopardy are located in Albuquerque, N.M.; Charleston, S.C.; Honolulu; San Antonio; San Diego; Brick, N.J.; Cobb County, Ga.; Lafayette and Lake Charles, La.; New Port Richey, Fla.; West Haven, Conn.; Worchester, Mass.; Johnson County, Kans.; Tyler, Texas; and Ponce, Puerto Rico.

The American Legion is also greatly concerned about the low levels of VA funding requested for major and minor construction ($342 million and $715 million, respectively). The VA’s own Strategic Capital Investment Planning (SCIP) program indicated that VA would need between $53 billion and $65 billion over the next decade to properly fund its construction, maintenance and leasing needs.

The SCIP planning process clearly shows that Congress has been under-funding VA’s construction needs. "Clearly, if this under-funding continues, VA will never fix its identified deficiencies within its 10-year plan," Celli said. "Indeed, at current rates, it will take VA almost 60 years to address these current deficiencies."

The American Legion wants Congress to adopt the SCIP 10-year action plan and fund it accordingly. "Congress must appropriate sufficient funds to pay for needed VA construction projects and stop under-funding these accounts," Celli testified.

While grateful for prior VA funding, the Legion testified that America’s war veterans must still be taken care of in the aftermath of those wars; care for some veterans will go on for many years. The true cost of war, especially prolonged war, is expensive and only realized decades after the war is over, Celli told the committee.

In March, the Harvard Kennedy School issued a report that projected the total cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to be $4-$6 trillion.

Three major areas in VA’s $152.7 billion budget request that need immediate attention – claims processing, electronic records development and medical care – all received proposed increases that The American Legion believes "are a step in the right direction."

VA is requesting $2.5 billion for more efficient claims processing through technology enhancements, improved business processes and intensive staff training. Another $136 million in appropriations would fund the Veterans Claims Intake Program, which would allow paper records to be digitized and incorporated into VA’s new Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS).

About 80 percent of VA’s budget request for information technology will support the direct delivery of medical care and benefits to America’s veterans. That includes $155 million earmarked for VBMS development and implementation at all 58 of the Veterans Benefits Administration’s regional offices by the end of this year.

VA has requested $54.6 billion for veterans medical care in fiscal 2014, nearly $2 billion more than in fiscal 2013. Included in that total is $7 billion to expand inpatient, residential and outpatient mental health care; $4.1 billion to meet the health-care needs of about 675,000 Iraq/Afghanistan war veterans; and $7.6 billion to expand long-term care services.

Health care for women veterans would get far more attention from the fiscal 2014 budget proposal, which asks for $422 million to provide improved gender-specific services. This figure is an increase of 134 percent from the $180 million requested for fiscal 2009.

Nearly 95 percent of VA’s budget request would fund medical programs (38.2 percent) and its mandatory benefits programs (56.4 percent). A total of $86.1 billion has been requested by VA to fund disability benefits, pensions and Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits.

The American Legion is hopeful the savings generated from downsizing the military will be leveraged against the needs of thousands of servicemembers who will soon be discharged.

But in previous years, the Legion testified, such savings "are not used to provide the care and benefits afforded to our nation’s veterans. Too often, while veteran advocates celebrate dramatically increased budgets, the veteran patient, claimant or widow is left wondering where the money went."

Click here to read The American Legion’s written testimony submitted to the hearing.