VA needs to come to terms with advance appropriations

In one of the most baffling announcements of the year, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) issued a statement Thursday saying that it opposes expanding advance appropriations for the remaining portion of the VA's annual budget that is not funded one year in advance. This unusual position puts veterans at significant risk of harm should the government shut down again, and it reflects poorly on the VA.

More than 85 percent of the VA's budget already receives advance appropriations from Congress, a policy change dating back to 2009 that Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and other veteran service organizations fought for and won. As a result of that victory, the VA's health care system was insulated from the effects of the recent government shutdown, and veterans were able to continue receiving both routine and critical medical services until politicians could get their act together.

The rest of the VA, however, did not fare so well during the shutdown. The processing of new benefits claims was halted, important help lines and centers were shuttered, and VA warned that it would not be able to make mandatory benefits payments to students, disabled veterans, and survivors if the shutdown was prolonged into November. 

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Fortunately for veterans and their families, the chairman and ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) and Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine) introduced legislation with strong bipartisan support to fund the remaining 14 percent of the VA's budget in advance. This bill, the Putting Veterans Funding First Act, would protect the entire VA, its employees, and the millions of veterans they serve from ever again becoming political pawns in Washington's budget fights. 

Earlier this week at a joint press conference organized by the Disabled American Veterans, the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), announced his support for advance appropriations for the rest of the VA's budget and his intention to mark up this bill in his committee within weeks. The House committee already marked up and reported out the same bill earlier in the year. 

So how did the VA respond to the renewed attention and growing support for the effort to provide the department with a secure, advance stream of funding for its operations and for veterans' benefits payments? The VA is saying it does not want that guaranteed financial security. This is a bizarre, ill-advised position that is clearly not in the best interests of veterans.

Whether the VA wants full advance appropriations or not, legislators on both sides of the aisle in both chambers of Congress, virtually all major military and veteran service organizations, and veterans themselves want the VA to be securely funded. This is one pill that the VA is just going to have to swallow.

Nicholson is legislative director of the Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA)