Should we defund the VA, too?

Should we defund the VA, too?

Government spending is a topic that seems to get a fair amount of attention in Washington. How much to spend on various government programs often highlights partisan divides, and is the main factor in the recent slew of government shutdowns.

However, the attention the topic receives is often in the form of grandstanding and one-liners our elected representatives hope to see repeated on television and on social media, rather than a reflection of carefully thought out policy proposals and their effects on the American people. 

In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, a rallying cry to “defund the police” has emerged. As the merits of the idea continue to be debated by individual communities, an important question arises about our approach to government spending generally, not just on law enforcement. 

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If the rationale for defunding the police is that the current system is not working, should we also examine whether to defund other government programs that are not working as well? 

Take, for example, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). VA’s funding levels have nearly doubled in the past decade, and are now more than four times the total in the fiscal year 2001 when the entire VA budget was only about $45 billion (a total of $243.3 billion was requested for the fiscal year 2021). 

During this same period of massive budget increases, VA has faced its share of problems. It was not fully prepared to handle the influx of veterans returning from the post-9/11 conflicts, leading to a backlog in disability claims processing and ultimately a backlog of medical appointments

In the meantime, VA’s culture was described as “corrosive” by President Obama’s deputy chief of staff, Rob Nabors. And, despite Nabors report, a culture of retaliation against whistleblowers who alerted elected officials and superiors at the Department of wrong-doing permeated for the next several years. 

Nonetheless, VA’s supporters continue to insist that the reason for its past problems is a lack of funding.  

As recently highlighted by the New York Times, “lawmakers are loath to cut services for veterans or lose facilities in their districts, and they rarely suggest cuts to the Department, regardless of its inefficiencies or problems."

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Ironically, many of these same lawmakers are the ones now declaring that we must defund the police for its inefficiencies and problems. 

With regard to defunding the police, the argument is as follows: 

According to a review of spending on state and local police over the last 60 years, there is no correlation between spending on law enforcement and the reduction of crime rates. Therefore, rather than abolishing the police, their budget should be re-allocated to various community-based agencies and organizations, because the role of the police is far broader than simply enforcing the law. The argument follows that more investment is needed on mental health resources and counseling services because people suffering from a mental health episode or a crisis aren’t criminals, but rather citizens in need of other types of community support.

This logic appears to apply directly to the VA, too. There does not seem to be a direct correlation between VA’s recent budget increases and health care outcomes for veterans. For example, VA’s funding on suicide prevention and mental health programs has more than doubled since 2005, without any significant decrease in the rate of veterans' suicides.

Further, more money has not stopped reports of waste, fraud and mismanagement at VA. The Government Accountability Office has, year after year, flagged VA as a “High Risk” agency for its health care delivery and the way it contracts for goods and services.

To this end, Comptroller General of the United States and GAO head Gene Dodaro recently testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform that: “We keep finding the same problems over and over” going back “years at the VA.” 

Yet, lawmakers continue to provide VA more and more funding. 

To reiterate, if we the argument goes that we need to defund the police because they are ineffective, why are we continuing to fund the VA?

The defund the police argument that funding would be better spent on community-based resources applies with equal force to veterans’ services as it does to law enforcement. Most recently, in the context of addressing the veteran's suicide epidemic, lawmakers examined the implementation of a collective impact model to provide greater access to community-based programs to veterans that may be struggling. 

Codified in a 2011 Stanford Social Innovation Review article by John Kania and Mark Kramer of the consulting firm FSG, “Collective Impact” is a structured approach to working together, better. And, one of the best way to work together, better, is to cast a wider net, beyond the walls of VA hospitals and clinics, by utilizing existing community-based resources.

Indeed, a recent study by VA found that a majority of veterans, 10.2 million, do not receive any VA benefits or services (versus 9.7 million veterans that use at least one VA benefit or service). 

Thus, as the VA itself concedes, “just as suicides are not caused by a single factor, suicide cannot be prevented by any single strategy or approach. Rather, suicide prevention is best achieved across the individual, relationship, family, community, and societal levels across the private and public sectors.”

To be clear, I am not arguing to abolish the VA, nor to strip it of all of its funding. There is a role for VA in the future of veterans' health care, just as there is a role for law enforcement in our communities. 

However, what I am arguing is that perhaps it is time to re-think how we allocate funding to other government agencies, such as VA, in the wake of the defund the police movement. 

Certainly, if successful outcomes are the goal, we must accept the fact that throwing more money at problems seldom solves them. 

Rory E. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), where she represented veterans and their survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. She also served as the staff director and counsel for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for former Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). You can find her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.