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VA Needs Its Budget On Time!

Op-Ed

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC

VA Needs Its Budget On Time!

What if you showed up late to your job 19 out of 22 days? Or paid your bills late 19 out of 22 months? You'd probably be out of work and out of luck. This deplorable record of tardiness is held by none other than those responsible for producing the annual VA budget. It has been late 19 out of 22 years, with an average implementation time of three months after the beginning of the fiscal year. It should be noted that in the 110th Congress, we passed the single largest increase for veterans' healthcare in the 77-year history of the VA — and did so on time. But given the track record over the last two decades, the time for reforming the way we budget for our nation's veterans is now!

Late funding is more than a missed deadline. It's a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder who can't get access to needed counseling. It's an injured hero who must wait for a prosthetic. It's a disability claim backlog run amuck. It's a VA in disarray at a time when our wounded warriors are counting on the VA's services.

In conjunction with dedicated veterans' service organizations across the country and a bipartisan, bicameral group of cosponsors, we recently introduced the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act of 2009 — legislation that would authorize appropriations for VA healthcare programs one year in advance of the start of the fiscal year. In other words, VA healthcare would have a one-year head start over other discretionary programs.

We believe this makes perfect sense. Funding for the men and women who risked their lives to protect our freedoms should not be subject to the annual budget tug-of-war. Providing the VA with timely, sufficient and predictable resources will allow it to effectively manage its healthcare programs and services and to hire the appropriate number of clinicians, nurses and support staff to meet the demand for high-quality medical care.

This legislation would also add a new level of accountability to VA healthcare funding. It would implement an enrollee projection model that has proven to be accurate in estimating the number of veterans that will enter the VA system. This newly implemented, actuarially based model would be subject to an annual Government Accountability Office audit to ensure its accuracy and efficacy. One of our greatest frustrations with President Bush's VA was its tendency to lowball exactly how much funding it needed. These new measures would prevent that from happening in the future.

Congress can and has provided advanced appropriations for a number of important programs such as Section 8 housing vouchers and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Given the ongoing war in Iraq and President Obama's recent announcement that he is sending additional troops to Afghanistan, it is even more critical that the VA is prepared to meet the 21st century needs of our wounded warriors.

Over the past decade, the number of veterans treated at VA facilities has almost doubled. Yet during that time the VA actually ran out of money twice — suffering shortfalls of $1 billion in 2005 and $2 billion in 2006. We cannot afford this going forward — especially as the healthcare needs of post-9/11 veterans continue to become even more complex.

The principle of advanced appropriations has already received significant support. A group of more than two-dozen former VA secretaries, deputy secretaries, under secretaries, region network directors and hospital directors have all endorsed our bill.

Even President Obama has said it is time to "end the unpredictability and inadequacy of VA's discretionary funding process and instead, use an advanced appropriations process that would allow Congress to provide VA healthcare dollars in advance and allow for improved planning and predictability." Yes, we can!

President Kennedy once said, "As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them."

To live up to the promises made to our men and women in uniform, we should make advanced appropriations the law of the land.


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