Using the VA Mission Act to justify raising federal spending levels is bad for veterans and taxpayers
Earlier this month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin demanding that an additional $22 billion above current federal spending levels be included in any deal to raise the debt limit in order to pay for new private health care options created by the VA MISSION Act – the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care reform law signed by President Donald Trump but which was opposed by Pelosi. This requested increase comes in spite of the fact the 2019 VA budget is just under $200 billion under current non-defense spending levels, which is more than double what the VA budget was over a decade ago. The extraordinary increase in the VA budget has far outpaced the growth of patients and beneficiaries and has occurred during a decline in the overall veteran population.
Ensuring veterans get the care and benefits they earned is a critical part of the social contract our country has made with those who put their lives on the line in our defense. It is therefore vital to our national security to have a properly funded VA. But there is a difference between providing the resources the VA needs to accomplish its mission and raising federal budget levels to spend billions more on the VA without a meaningful assessment of whether those additional funds are needed.
Unfortunately, Congress has too often taken the latter approach, to the detriment of veterans and American taxpayers alike.
In 2014, it was revealed that veterans across the country were dying on secret lists while waiting for VA health care. Some ardent defenders of the VA claimed the long wait times for care were a result of lack of funding. But the Obama administration had massively increased the VA’s budget in the previous five years – growing more than $50 billion from 2009 to 2014. In the aftermath of the 2014 scandal, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed into law a measure that gave the VA another $15 billion increase. In subsequent years the VA budget would continue to grow, reaching its current level of nearly $200 billion.
Despite the influx of resources, veterans continued to die on wait lists and receive poor quality care. The reason is simple: Congress and prior presidential administrations refused to thoroughly address systemic issues within the VA that wasted money and hindered its health care delivery. They chose the easier path of just writing the VA a bigger check.
For example, as of 2017, most of the VA’s medical facilities were more than 50 years old. Considering the shrinking size and changing demographics of the veteran population, most of these facilities are not in the best locations to provide the best and most convenient care. Many VA hospitals are operating either at significant under-capacity or over-capacity. For primarily political reasons, Congress prevented the VA from shifting infrastructure resources to account for this dynamic. Instead, the agency has been forced to spend billions maintaining aging and underutilized facilities.
Fortunately, the VA MISSION Act included provisions mandating the VA undertake an infrastructure review to ensure that funds for facilities are spent to best serve veterans and not wasted on unnecessary or outdated buildings. Additionally, the law consolidated the VA’s community care programs and greatly expanded health care choice for veterans. Unlike many past efforts effort to reform the VA, the VA MISSION Act took a different approach then just simply spending more money – it fundamentally changed how the VA delivers health care to veterans.
The current overall federal spending levels provide more than enough budgetary flexibility to pay for any additional expenses incurred by the implementation of the VA MISSION Act. Further raising spending levels to provide additional money for the already-funded VA MISSION Act, as Pelosi is demanding, would set a bad precedent while also disincentivizing further reforms within the VA that would reduce waste and improve care for our veterans.
No one wants to shortchange those who sacrificed in service of our country. But as recent history has shown, simply dumping more money into the VA without real reform serves neither our veterans nor taxpayers. With a $22 trillion national debt posing a growing threat to our national security, additional unnecessary spending puts at risk the future of the very country our veterans fought to defend.
Dan Caldwell is a senior adviser for Concerned Veterans for America and veteran of the Iraq War.
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