March 27, 2018 – VA Secretary David Shulkin testified before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee regarding the department’s budget for the 2019 fiscal year. Shulkin has been under fire in recent weeks after the Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report revealing widespread issues at the DC VA medical center.
What Is In the Budget?
The VA 2019 Fiscal Year budget requests $198 billion overall, with increases in veteran mental health services, construction, women’s health, and electronic health record modernization. The budget also includes additional hiring within the agency to implement the coming appeal reforms, and expanding mental health services to veterans who received “bad paper” discharges.
Shulkin noted the VA is looking to fund additional hiring for fiduciary services as well as streamline the VA hiring process in general to fill vacancies within the agency and healthcare facilities.
Funding For the Choice Program
Shulkin testified that the budget allocates funding for the Choice program and community care as a priority for the 2019 fiscal year. Funding for the program has been difficult to predict and the VA has shifted funding to community care to supplement the funding gaps. Shulkin stated in the hearing that community care is a priority, as the VA is not willing to let veterans wait for care.
The Choice program allows veterans who meet certain requirements to access care outside of the VA healthcare system. The program was implemented in an effort to address long wait times for care at VA facilities. The Choice program has experienced problems since its implementation, including the slow pace of VA to pay private facilities for the care they provide to veterans through Choice. Shulkin testified that the VA has tasked rapid response teams with paying these providers, and the VA has prioritized providers in rural areas and those that the VA owes the most to be reimbursed.
Caregivers Program Funding
During the hearing, Senator Pat Murphy from Washington noted that the VA 2019 budget cut funding to the Caregivers Program. Expanding the caregiver program beyond those who served after 9/11 has been stalled in Congress due to a lack of funding to extend the benefit to additional families.
What Happened to VA Programs in the Omnibus Funding Bill?
On March 23, 2018, Congress passed an omnibus spending bill that omitted mention of several key veteran programs. The bill includes increased spending for mental health services and suicide prevention, funding for modernizing the VA electronic medical records system, and increased infrastructure spending.
The bill does not include increased funding for the caregiver program or the Choice program.