VA balks on more advance funding

The American Legion voiced its strong support at a July 17 congressional hearing for a House bill that would extend advance appropriations to all Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) programs, including discretionary accounts such as information technology and construction.

Louis Celli, legislative director for The American Legion, testified in favor of the Putting Veterans Funding First Act (H.R. 813) at a hearing before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

Previously, the Legion supported the 2009 passage of the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act. This measure helped to ensure sufficient, timely and predictable funding for veterans health care by authorizing funding of VA medical programs one year in advance.

At the hearing, VA panelists failed to support the measure, which would give their department even more benefits derived from advance appropriations. According to Celli, committee members could not get a straight answer as to why VA did not support the bill. Testifying for VA were Robert Snyder, acting assistant secretary for the office of policy and planning; Helen Tierney, executive-in-charge for the office of management; and

Duane Flemming, director of the policy analysis and forecasting office.

The committee’s chair, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., reminded the VA panelists that he had introduced the bill last February, and that VA had been asked to evaluate the bill at previous hearings, which, in the opinion of the committee, gave VA more than enough time to evaluate and formulate an opinion.

The committee pointed out to the panelists that advance appropriations currently account for 84 percent of the VA budget. Excluding the remaining 14 percent was causing serious delays in the deployment of vital new equipment, such as x-ray machines, because VA cannot contract for network cable installation until Congress approves its pending IT budget request.

When asked why VA was unable to support the measure, Snyder told the committee that government review and analysis would have to be conducted before VA could agree to dedicate the remaining 14 percent of its budget to advance appropriations.

The American Legion has continued to support, by resolution, the assured funding of VA medical care. It now recognizes that many other key VA accounts would benefit from advanced appropriations, including information technology, the Veterans Benefits Management System, electronic health records and major/minor construction.

Through the work of more than 2,600 American Legion accredited representatives, 10 years of System Worth Saving reports that have evaluated the quality of VA health care and services, and the hundreds of programs facilitated through thousands of Legion posts working on behalf of veterans nationwide, The American Legion has the ability and resources to assess firsthand the importance of safeguarding the important initiatives rolling out to meet the needs of America’s veterans.

"We want this committee to know that we are adamant about protecting these vital services," Celli said. "Whether they are in place to serve our recently returning servicemembers ... our Vietnam-era veterans facing retirement, or World War II and Korean War veterans facing the decisions revolving around elder care."

VA budgets need to properly reflect the long-term planning necessary to meet expansion of the national cemetery system, the Veterans Benefits Management System, and electronic health-record projects. These programs, and our veterans, deserve the same benefit of a long-term planning window that the medical care accounts enjoy.

The American Legion strongly supports the expansion of advanced appropriations to all VA discretionary accounts. Assured funding that supports long-term planning is essential in preventing future backlogs, future breakdowns in benefits delivery, and providing the smooth IT structure required for seamless transition.

Draft legislation for the VA Budget Planning Reform Act was also considered at the hearing. This legislation, broad in scope, seeks to formalize planning procedures and to develop tools for use by VA, Congress and veterans service organizations (VSOs) to determine whether VA budgeting is on track to meet its goals for delivering benefits and services to the nation’s veterans.

Celli stated the measure’s intention "is admirable, as more transparency and access to more data is helpful for all stakeholders to ensure VA is moving forward in the direction that will best meet the needs of veterans. As The American Legion is a resolution-based, grass-roots organization that derives our operational mandate from our combined membership in the form of resolutions passed at regular meetings — and the resolutions are silent on the structural changes this legislation would impose — we cannot support or oppose this legislation. However, the very important concepts outlined in this legislation merit discussion on a section by section basis."

The bill outlines a plan for VA to create a "Future-Years Veterans Program" to coincide with the annual budget submission. This program would cover estimated expenses over a five-year period. The first two years of the program would mirror the budget submission, but would also contain out-year projections to meet the goals of VA. This information could be useful to outside observers. For example, if VA were to suddenly lower funding from a key project in one year’s budget, and not reflect a down-the-road increase, it would immediately raise red flags as to how they still intended to meet the goal with drastically reduced funding.

Furthermore, by comparing the Future-Years program from year to year, any budgetary discrepancies would presumably become glaringly obvious. An example of this type of behavior can be seen with recent under-funding of VA’s construction budgets. Despite the fact that VA has a Strategic Capital Investment Planning (SCIP) program to determine long-term construction needs, the budget requests for major and minor construction over the past few years have been low.

As noted by Past National Vice Commander of The American Legion William Schrier before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, VA’s SCIP plan called for $65 billion in construction projects over the next 10 years ($6.5 billion per year), yet VA’s own budget request was less than $2 billion. This shortfall prompted the Legion to push for more construction funding so VA would not fall behind its own SCIP program needs. Sadly, the budget was not increased, but perhaps with better tools to see the discrepancies, Congress will also be able to recognize these shortfalls and help adjust VA’s budget upwards when critical goals are in danger of not being met.

The proposed bill also calls for a "quadrennial veterans review" starting in fiscal 2017 that would re-examine the commitments of the United States to veterans and determine what resources are necessary to deliver on those commitments.