Senate committee reviews VA budget request

On April 15, members of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs (VA) heard from VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and his colleagues during a hearing on the president’s fiscal year (FY) 2014 budget request for VA.

President Barack Obama has requested $152.7 billion for VA’s FY 2014 budget, 56.4 percent for mandatory accounts and 43.5 percent for discretionary accounts. Of the $66.5 billion in discretionary funding, 87.6 percent would be spent on medical programs.

In his opening remarks, Committee Chair Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., noted the budget request was 10.2 percent greater than for FY 2012. "While the VA budget presented by the administration is a strong one – and I applaud the president for that – I remain deeply disappointed that the White House included in their budget request the so-called chained CPI (Consumer Price Index)."

Sanders said that switching to chained CPI would mean major cuts in Social Security and benefits that disabled veterans receive. "Veterans who started receiving VA disability benefits at age 30 would have their benefits reduced by $1,425 at age 45, $2,341 at age 55, and over $3,000 a year at age 65 – tens of thousands of dollars within their lifetimes," he said. "This, to my mind, is unconscionable, and I will do all that I can to prevent these cuts from taking place."

VA Secretary Shinseki told the committee that of the roughly 22 million veterans living in America, more than 11 million are receiving at least one benefit or service from VA, which is an increase of more than a million veterans since 2009. "Increasing access is a success story at VA," he said.

The disability claims backlog is another story, which VA reported to be 616,106 cases (pending more than 125 days) as of April 13. "We know this is unacceptable and no one wants to turn this situation around more than this secretary, Under Secretary (Allison) Hickey, or the folks who come to work at VBA (Veterans Benefits Administration) every day, 52 percent of whom are veterans themselves," Shinseki said.

Hickey testified that VBA is "working every single day to drive that (claims) number south. We are doing it by focus(ing) on our people, process(es) and technology solutions. And as far as we can, pushing up our productivity by our folks."

VA’s budget request for minor construction, $715 million, is up from FY 2013 by nearly 18 percent. But its request for major construction, $342 million, is almost 36 percent lower. Shinseki said minor construction funding "is money that gets into the hands of hospital directors very quickly and impacts more facilities" and services that benefit veterans directly. Major VA construction, Shinseki said, "is a stable program, and we have a plan for in-phase funding (for) the execution of a number of large projects."

Addressing the issue of VA’s transition to an electronic claims process, Hickey told the committee that about 116,000 claims are already in electronic folders. New claims arriving at VBA are immediately scanned and the electronic version is worked through the process via the Veterans Benefits Management System.

Shinseki also talked about VA’s programs to increase veterans employment. "We have over 100,000 veterans as part of our work force, fully 30 percent, and our goal is 40 percent," he said. "We have also held hiring fairs for veterans interested in employment…. We also encourage veteran-owned small businesses to stand up. Our experience is, a veteran business owner is more willing to hire veterans."