Congress and the president must finish the job of funding veterans' programs

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month each year, our elected leaders gather to pay tribute to the service and sacrifice of millions of living and departed veterans with words and symbolic actions.  But how about after the speeches have been read and the wreaths laid; will they turn their grand intentions into concrete actions to fulfill our promises to the men and women who served?  They can start by passing legislation to put veterans funding first.

Four years ago, right before Veterans Day, President Obama and Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Eric Shinseki stood with Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate, together with a dozen leaders of major veterans service organizations (VSOs) to sign historic legislation designed to remove partisan politics from veterans health care funding. Originally developed and promoted by Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and a broad VSO coalition, this popular bipartisan law authorized Congress to appropriate VA’s medical care funding one year in advance, thereby shielding VA hospitals and clinics from disruptions caused when unrelated budget fights lead to temporary continuing resolutions or even partial government shutdowns, as just occurred.

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Four years later, building on the universally acclaimed success of VA’s medical care advance appropriations, another coalition of VSOs joined another bipartisan and bicameral group of senators and representatives at a Capitol Hill news conference calling for new legislation to extend advance appropriations to all remaining VA discretionary and mandatory programs.  Standing in solidarity were the Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the Chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) and several bipartisan Congressional sponsors. In today’s hyper-partisan atmosphere, it is a rare bill that enjoys such diverse and widespread political support.

So why did VA put out an official statement trumpeting its lack of support for extending advance appropriations on the morning of that news conference? And does the Secretary or the President stand behind that statement today?

As almost anyone working in the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) will attest, advance appropriations are a godsend for veterans seeking VA health care, not just during shutdowns, but whenever Congress fails to approve the federal budget on time, which has occurred in 22 of the past 25 years. With advance appropriations, VHA is better able to plan its medical care programs and manage its budgets with the precious resources Congress provides to them. However there are still parts of VHA –  including information technology (IT) research and construction – that do not receive advance appropriation; the same is true for the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), National Cemetery Administration and all mandatory veterans benefit payments.

Secretary Shinseki has told Congress on more than one occasion of his desire to include IT funding with the medical care advance appropriation because modern health care delivery relies so heavily on IT systems. VHA Under Secretary Dr. Randy Petzel echoed that sentiment in an appearance at the DAV national convention this past August, declaring that advance appropriations “… has been a very positive thing for VHA” and arguing that “there is really nothing we do that doesn’t require IT.”  With similar logic and conviction, VBA Principal Under Secretary Danny Pummill told the assembled DAV conventioneers that, “…from a VBA perspective, anything that we could do to get advance appropriations [for VBA] would be a good thing for America’s veterans.”  We could not agree more.

Bipartisan legislation is currently pending in both the House (H.R. 813) and the Senate (S. 932), called the Putting Veterans Funding First Act, which would extend advance appropriations to all VA discretionary programs. Since we have learned that veterans disability compensation, pension, and education benefit payments would have come to a halt had the shutdown lasted a couple of weeks more, Congress needs to amend these bills to include all veterans benefits that rely on mandatory funding as well. 

At the bill signing ceremony four years ago, President Obama called advance appropriations “common-sense reform” that “promotes accountability,” is “fiscally responsible,” and does not “add a dime to the deficit.”  He declared that, “… veterans’ health care will no longer be held hostage to annual budget battles in Washington.” The legislation he signed that day was passed by a vote of 419 to 1 in the House and with the unanimous consent of every Senator. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) all supported this legislation. Now we need them to work together to bring this legislation up for a vote, amend it and send it to the President. We also need President Obama to make a clear, public statement that he supports this legislation, thereby repudiating VA’s opposition, and declaring his intention to sign it into law.

This Veterans Day, in between the parades and pancake breakfasts, we need our elected leaders to put aside partisan politics and join together to protect America’s heroes. It is time to change how Washington pays for veterans programs by putting veterans funding first. America’s veterans deserve no less.

Augustine, a combat-wounded Vietnam veteran, is executive director of DAV’s National Service and Legislative Headquarters in Washington, D.C.