Published by NIKKI WENTLING
WASHINGTON — House lawmakers began a debate Wednesday about a White House proposal to separate funding for veterans’ medical care from the rest of the federal budget — an action that would treat it the same as defense spending and could allow it to grow beyond current limits.
Discretionary spending, which is subject to the congressional appropriations process, is divided into two categories: defense and nondefense. Congress provided $1.5 trillion in discretionary spending for fiscal 2022, with $782 billion toward defense and $730 billion going to other areas of the government. Of the $730 billion in nondefense spending, about $117 billion went to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In President Joe Biden’s budget request for fiscal 2023, he proposed removing veterans’ health care from the nondefense category and giving it its own funding stream. The change would free the veterans’ health budget from caps on nondefense spending and allow more money to go toward other nondefense areas, such as education, transportation and homeland security, said VA Secretary Denis McDonough.
“For us to continue to grow at the rates we’re growing, that’s coming at the expense of the rest of nondefense discretionary [spending and] makes us less effective overall,” he said.
McDonough testified Wednesday before a House Appropriations Committee subpanel about the VA’s budget proposal for fiscal 2023. The proposal, released in March, would push the agency’s overall budget to more than $300 billion.
About $161 billion of the $300 billion is mandatory spending, which includes entitlement programs, such as disability compensation. Mandatory spending does not go through the congressional appropriations process.
The remaining amount, $139 billion, is part of the nondefense discretionary budget, and approximately $120 billion of that amount is dedicated to veterans’ medical care. The White House proposed the VA get a 20% increase in funding for medical care in fiscal 2023. McDonough attributed the significant jump to health care inflation and an increase in demand for services.
To address the growing costs of medical care, the White House suggested VA health care be given its own stream of funding, sending a message that veterans’ medical care should be treated with the same significance as national defense.
“I thought it was a very important, innovative idea from the White House, from [the Office of Management and Budget], to separate veterans’ health care,” McDonough said. “I think it makes sense to separate this from the broader account to underscore, as we do with defense, the unique nature and unique importance of investments in veteran health.”
The separation could be more necessary if Congress approves a sweeping measure that aims to expand eligibility for health care and benefits to veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxins, McDonough said. The bill has the potential to significantly increase the number of enrollees in VA health care....
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