Democrats, vets’ advocates call for VA funding in year-end spending bill

by Stars and Stripes, Nikki Wenling

WASHINGTON – Senate Democrat Jon Tester urged Congress on Wednesday to lift spending caps and fully fund the Department of Veterans Affairs in a possible year-end budget deal that could be reached by the end of the week.

Congress passed an emergency spending bill last Thursday to fund the government until Dec. 22. With only days remaining on the official congressional calendar, House conservatives on Wednesday were considering another stopgap deal to lift strict caps on defense spending and provide a full year’s worth funding to the Defense Department while giving only short-term funding to other agencies, according to news reports.

Tester, along with the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and Rep. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, argued the VA and other agencies should receive the same consideration given the Defense Department.

“This fight right now is about whether the Department of Defense and the Department of Defense only gets more resources, and what we’re saying is if you stand by servicemembers, you have to stand by veterans,” Schatz said. “That means funding defense and non-defense on an equal basis.”

Senate Democrats sent a letter to GOP leadership Tuesday asking for bipartisan negotiation on a spending deal.

Tester, on a call with reporters, urged lawmakers to incorporate all provisions from the Caring for Our Veterans Act in a year-end deal. The act is bipartisan legislation that the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee advanced to the full Senate on Nov. 29.

The bill is estimated to cost $54 billion for five years. It expands caregiver benefits to veterans injured before 9/11, overhauls the VA’s community care programs and includes $3 billion for the nearly depleted Veterans Choice program, among other things.

“I think it’s just a matter of pushing leadership to get it on the end-of-year package,” said Tester, the ranking Democrat on the Senate committee and a sponsor of the bill. “This will solve the VA’s problems for the short term, and I think it would move it forward in the long term, too.”

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, issued a statement Tuesday asking Senate leadership to schedule a vote on the bill. VA Secretary David Shulkin sent notice earlier Tuesday that the Choice program, which allows veterans to receive care in the private sector, would be depleted in three to five weeks. Without congressional action, he wrote, the VA will be overburdened and veterans will experience decreased access to medical care.

Emergency funding for the Choice program isn’t an option that Tester wants to consider yet, he said.

Congress already approved $2.1 billion in last-minute funding to the Choice program in mid-August when it hit a shortfall. Tester described another emergency funding bill as a “Band-Aid” on a problem that needs a long-term solution.

“Stopgap is not the kind of predictability our veterans deserve,” Tester said. “Short-term fixes are exactly what’s wrong with Washington. Let’s get something long-term and predictable. Our veterans deserve nothing less than that.”

Two other Choice program reform bills exist in Congress. The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hasn’t yet agreed on a bill that was introduced in November.