Measure would provide predictable care for vets

Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), the chairmen of the Senate and House Veterans’ Affairs committees, on Thursday introduced bipartisan legislation that would ensure that injured soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have predictable medical care funding.

A coalition of veterans’ organizations has been pressing Congress for months to approve advance appropriations for medical care as part of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) budget.

This would give the VA much more certainty over its funding, as it would know its budget a year in advance. For example, funding for 2010 would have to be approved this year.

Congress now appropriates VA medical care funds on an annual basis. Political squabbling has delayed VA funding in 13 of the past 14 years — something that has severely hampered the department’s ability to plan and manage its healthcare system, according to veterans.

Veterans’ groups say the change would ensure the agency could better handle the growing number of veterans who depend on the government for medical care.

More troops are surviving attacks on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan thanks to improved equipment, but many return with traumatic brain injuries, lost limbs, severe burns or blindness that can make them dependent on VA care for life. Since many of those injured are only in their 20s, some will require decades of medical attention.

Veterans’ organizations and their supporters in Congress for years have pressed that the VA budget be mandatory entitlement spending, like Social Security and Medicare, as this would give the agency the most stability.

The groups have now shifted to pushing for the more realistic goal of advance appropriations — a first-time endeavor.

With one week remaining before Congress adjourns before the elections and only a chance of a lame-duck session afterwards, the likelihood of the legislation passing this year is slim. But the legislation is a symbol of the bipartisan support for a concept that Congress has not tackled before, supporters said.

The lawmakers worked closely with the Partnership for Veterans Healthcare Budget Reform, which is comprised of AMVETS, Blinded Veterans Association (BVA), Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Jewish War Veterans (JWV), Military Order of the Purple Heart (MOPH), Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA).

“For almost two decades, veterans’ healthcare funding has either been insufficient or late, and usually it is both,” said PVA President Randy Pleva. “While funding bills have increased in recent years, especially the last two years, they are still consistently late.”

The new legislation would also require the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to audit VA’s budget forecasting model and report to Congress and the public on the integrity and accuracy of the model.

Fifty percent of VA’s funding is for veteran benefits, which are mandatory entitlement spending.

The other half is discretionary and covers healthcare. The majority of that funding goes to medical care, while a small portion goes into construction, prosthetic research and veterans’ support homes.