Chairman Delivers Remarks at Hearing on VA Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2023
WASHINGTON, D.C—Today, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif) delivered opening remarks at the Full Committee Hearing on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2023. This year’s request provides for an 11.3% increase over 2022’s funding and demonstrates this Administration’s firm commitment to our nation’s veterans.
Full video of Chairman Takano’s remarks can be found here
Chairman Takano’s remarks as prepared:
Today, we welcome Secretary McDonough and Veteran Service Organization representatives of the Independent Budget to discuss the Department of Veterans Affairs Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2023. Ultimately, budgets are about values—and I’m pleased to see that this year’s budget request showcases a firm commitment to our nation’s veterans by the Biden-Harris Administration and VA leadership.
During his State of the Union speech, President Biden brought veterans to the forefront of his Unity Agenda. With substantial investments in VA healthcare, benefits delivery, education, employment training, addressing homelessness, and much more, this budget request puts much-needed funding behind these priorities.
By the numbers, this year’s request provides for $301.4 billion in funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs—an 11.3 percent increase over fiscal year 2022. I’m encouraged by this robust request, but now is the time to think about the future of VA—and specifically, the future this budget request will create.
Our veteran population is rapidly changing. As a result, VA must meet the unique needs of various cohorts including women, LGBTQ+, minority, homeless, and deported veterans. So, we must ask: does this budget serve every veteran, everywhere?
Does this budget reflect where we are now—after two years of a global pandemic? Is this the budget that represents VA’s changing future? Or is it simply the status quo? I look forward to hearing Secretary McDonough’s thoughts on these questions.
VA has certainly weathered some storms over the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I am deeply grateful to all of the VA employees who stepped up to serve our nation. VA’s healthcare workers cared for more than 620 thousand veterans diagnosed with COVID-19, administered vaccines to more than 4.5 million individuals, and even supported pandemic response for civilians. VA’s benefits workforce was suddenly placed in a remote posture, yet staff worked diligently to chip away at a vast claims processing backlog.
VA employees proved that this work could be done efficiently online—in fact, they processed more than 760,000 cases since October 1st, the largest workload accomplished in VA history for this point in the fiscal year.
These are significant accomplishments, and, again, I want to thank our VA employees for such great service and sacrifice during trying times.
As this nation starts to grapple with preparing for the next public health emergency, I know there are many lessons from this current pandemic, and I hope VA—and our entire federal government—can learn from them. For example, given the impact COVID-19 has had on long-term care facilities nationwide, serious re-evaluations of this industry are required.
To date, there have been no widespread outbreaks of COVID-19 in any of VA’s 134 Community Living Centers, largely because of VA’s extensive expertise in geriatrics, infection control, and emergency response.
Furthermore, in the early days of the pandemic as supply chains crumbled under the unprecedented stress, VA was able to innovate as an integrated healthcare system. VA leveraged existing expertise and resources to not only 3-D print nasal swabs but also to manufacture the reagents needed for processing COVID-19 tests.
One of my top priorities this Congress is ensuring that we honor the pact we have made with veterans—especially those exposed to toxic substances—and deliver the healthcare and benefits we have promised. I am pleased that last month, the House passed my Honoring our PACT Act—key legislation to finally treat toxic exposure as a cost of war.
During the House’s consideration, many of my colleagues decried the cost of helping our toxic-exposed veterans, opting instead to support a smaller, less comprehensive bill, that would inevitably leave some veterans behind. They argue that the cost of caring for our veterans is too great, and that year after year VA's budget has ballooned. While I am pleased that the vast majority of this body saw through that false choice and voted to support the Honoring our PACT Act, I am concerned that this narrative has continued to survive in the Senate. What message are we sending to our nation's veterans when we break the sacred promise we've made to care for them and their families?
I'm heartened that the White House and the Department are strengthening their commitment to help these veterans, and I look forward to this legislation being considered in the Senate soon.
I’m also pleased to see President Biden and Secretary McDonough not only share my commitment to urgently address toxic exposure but have proposed funding to increase resources for new presumptive disability compensation claims and much-needed research. In addition, the President’s budget includes $120 million to support automating disability compensation claims; this is necessary funding to help speed up benefits delivery for veterans. While we still need to pass the Honoring our PACT Act into law to get justice for these veterans, this proposed funding is a welcome step in the right direction.
As we saw in last year’s annual report, Congress’ and VA’s efforts to meaningfully reduce veteran suicide are moving in the right direction. Therefore, I am very pleased to see this administration's continued commitment to addressing this issue. The Fiscal Year 2023 funding request of nearly $14 billion will allow VA to continue to grow its critical mental health and veteran suicide prevention programs.
It is our country’s diversity that strengthens us. All veterans—regardless of age, gender identity, sexuality, or race—must have access to the care and benefits they have earned. More women are choosing VA healthcare than ever before, and under President Biden’s request, more than $767 million will be directed toward gender-specific care for women veterans—a 9 percent increase over last year’s level. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
While women veterans currently make up roughly 10 percent of veterans, by 2043 that number will grow to over 16 percent.
In order to provide for all those who have served our nation, it is abundantly clear that VA’s infrastructure needs to be updated. Most VA hospitals are over 50 years old, and it’s clear there are places where the infrastructure is failing our veterans. While I would like to see more, this budget request provides for $3 billion to address these challenges. However, we know much more will be needed to keep VA’s place as a provider of world-class healthcare.
The Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission – or AIR Commission-- presents an opportunity to address this further and reshape the delivery of healthcare for veterans.
However, we just have to make sure that that’s what the AIR Commission actually does, and that it happens in a way that safeguards veterans’ access to the high-quality, specialized care they have earned, no matter where they live —now, and for generations to come.
I had misgivings about the AIR Commission in 2018 when we were negotiating the MISSION Act, but it was part of the bipartisan agreement that was reached. Every single Republican in the 115th Congress—including many of our current Committee Members—also voted in favor of this compromise.
The Secretary’s recommendations are based on data that I have questions about. Among other things, I am concerned that the recommendations were formulated without fully considering shifts in healthcare delivery and changes in the private-sector market that have occurred because of the pandemic. In addition, the MISSION Act community care program is still maturing—it was only launched about 9 months before the pandemic, and the pandemic affected referral patterns in 2020 and 2021. VA’s market assessments do not reflect this. Further, we know that our country’s entire healthcare sector has been severely impacted over the last two years, so we must ensure that any assumptions about care outside VA reflect that reality.
However, this is not the time to panic—the Secretary’s recommendations are only the first step in the process.
The President’s nominees for the Commission must still be confirmed by the Senate. I will be watching this process closely to ensure we have fair-minded commissioners who will consider the voices of all stakeholders. By law, these proposals to realign VA medical facilities will not become a reality without the full approval of the AIR Commission, the President, and—ultimately—Congress. I look forward to hearing more from Secretary McDonough about these recommendations.
To fully deliver on the promises we have made to our veterans, VA must improve its buildings and build new facilities closer to where veterans live, AND ensure it has the workforce to staff them and the IT support to keep them running. I am confident that VA is ready for this challenge.
We have a lot of work to do, but I have so much hope for the future of VA under Secretary McDonough. With this budget request, it is clear to me that President Biden, Secretary McDonough, and I share many of the same priorities. I look forward to continuing our conversation today as we discern what this budget request forecasts for the future of VA.
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