Yesterday, AMVETS and the partners on the Independent Budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs--Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and Veterans of Foreign Wars--testified before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, discussing the VA budget proposal for fiscal year 2012 and VA health care for 2013.
VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki and his assistant secretaries appeared on the first panel to explain the president's VA budget proposal to the first full committee hearing before the new Republican majority Congress.
To view a full list of participants and their prepared remarks, Click Here.
To view the Web cast of the hearing, Click Here.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the new committee chairman, acknowledged VA's concerted efforts to improve its services, but asked Shinseki if he and his staff could consider other ways to streamline operations while continuing to deliver the requisite care and benefits for American veterans.
In light of the current fiscal crisis, VA was one of only a handful of federal agencies slated to receive an increase in funding in the Obama Administration's budget proposals. Republicans agreed that given the scope of VA's mission, an increase was justified, but reminded Shinseki that his department was not exempt from public outcries to minimize government waste, imploring the secretary and his staff to identify duplicative processes and streamline overhead costs.
Similar questions were posed to representatives of the Independent Budget, who offered to sit down with the chairman and any interested members of the committee to discuss programs where VA may be able to streamline operations.
A major topic of discussion for the hearing was the looming disability claims backlog and VA's ongoing efforts to mitigate wait times for veterans seeking service-connected compensation and care. VA and the Independent Budget partners both applauded VA's ongoing pilot programs aimed at streamlining the process, but several committee members expressed skepticism that VA could meet the ever-growing demand.
Committee Ranking Member Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., proposed an alternative for mitigating the backlog where VA could offer to "buy out" veterans with a lump sum payment when they file disability claims, a proposal which AMVETS has consistently fought against.
While no plans to implement such a system have been formally proposed, AMVETS leaders insisted that they would voice their concerns and help to educate Congressional staff on the potential negative impact on veterans, should such an idea gain momentum.
Military Times discussed the proposed "fire sale" in a story yesterday afternoon.
During the hearing, Shinseki also publicly apologized for the delay in implementing veterans' caregiver benefits, which were signed into law last spring. Shinseki said that VA was forced to develop a new IT infrastructure to pay the new benefit, since payments would go directly to the civilian caregiver, who is technically not enrolled in the VA system.
Stars & Stripes discussed caregiver in-depth in their coverage of the hearing.
During the hearing, Filner also thanked the Independent Budget partners for their tireless efforts to pass advance appropriations for VA health care, since the VA budget for fiscal year 2011 remains in limbo, consistently operating on continuing resolutions. Filner said that thanks to advance appropriations, which were included for the first time in the 2010 budget, VA health care has been able to operate unabated, while Congress continues to debate the final budget for 2011.
"In the first year of [advance appropriations] we already see it was absolutely necessary," Filner said.
On Wednesday, March 2, VA and the Independent Budget partners will present their budget proposals to the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs. American Veteran will once again be on hand for the event. Check back on March 1 for more details on the hearing, and check back regularly for updates on the fiscal year 2012 budget process.
(Images: Top: AMVETS National Deputy Legislative Director Christina Roof testifies on the 2012 VA budget proposal before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, flanked by Independent Budget partners Carl Blake of PVA, Ray Kelley of VFW, and Joe Violante of DAV. Bottom: VA Secretary Eric Shinseki presents the president's VA budget proposal alongside his assistant secretaries. Photos by Ryan Gallucci.)