Although budget requests are routinely dismissed as pie-in-the-sky wish lists doomed to be slashed, lawmakers fear that the Veterans Affairs Department actually might not be asking for enough money to meet its needs.
Lawmakers have a long list of concerns about the VA in the latest budget go-round, in which the department is asking for $163.9 billion—a 6.5 percent increase over the current fiscal year. They are faced with complaints back home of deficient veterans' health centers, long claims backlogs, and questionable treatment for Iraq and Afghanistan vets who are readily prescribed heaps of drugs to deal with serious post-traumatic stress disorder.
"It's very easy to beat up on the VA," said Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders at a hearing Wednesday on its fiscal 2015 budget request.
Lawmakers from both parties took turns raising worries that the VA is not equipped to handle the veterans' needs back in their states, particularly when the wind-down of the Afghanistan war is sending a growing influx of servicemen and women into the VA system.
"As I understand it, the VA anticipates seeing an increase of approximately 100,000 new patients in the coming year," said Sanders, a Vermont independent. "But I am concerned whether the 3 percent increase in medical care that is in the budget will be sufficient to care for these new users, existing users, will span veterans services, and keep pace with all of the issues we have here. Is that enough money? It sounds to me like it's not."
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who was testifying before the panel, said the VA tried to ask for what it anticipates needing for 2015, but he admitted that the request was put together before the Defense Department announced its latest plans to reduce troop size.
"This budget request is prior to that plan being provided," Shinseki said. "We believe we have in this budget anticipated what our needs will be in 2015, but this again will depend on what the downsizing plan entails."
Congress has long been pushing the VA to work through its backlog of claims, and lawmakers continued to press the department Wednesday to ensure it is on track to clear through the backlog in 2015 as planned. Shinseki said it would.
But the concerns most lawmakers focused on were about the VA's capacity to provide adequate mental health services, and its ability to maintain and develop sufficient health care facilities.
Republican Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska complained about the VA's pace on capital improvement projects. Because an Omaha project was far down on the waiting list, he said it could take years for veterans to receive the access that they need.
"What I'm looking at, all these projects, a pretty rough estimate is that $23 billion is necessary to address what is on the waiting list," Johanns said. "How can we best put a process in place to address what you are dealing with and what we are dealing with? It's a lot of money; it would be very hard to come up with that."
Shinseki said that in the budget environment, the VA is trying to prioritize projects appropriately to provide for veterans' safety and security and maintain existing facilities. The VA has requested $561.8 million for major construction in its fiscal 2015 budget.
But Johanns questioned whether spending hundreds of millions of dollars to maintain old facilities was actually counterproductive.
"All these millions we are putting into these facilities across the country, I just hope we are not chasing good money with bad money," Johanns said.