April 03, 2019

Chairman Takano Delivers Opening Remarks before FY 2020 Budget Hearing

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano (CA-41) delivered opening remarks before the full committee oversight hearing entitled “U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2020.” Below is a link to the video of the Chairman’s opening statement and his remarks as prepared:

 takano 2020 budget


Good Afternoon. I call this hearing to order.

First I would like to welcome Secretary Wilkie, and our Veteran Service Organizations: The American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars to this hearing on the President’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget request.

This budget reflects the Administration’s priorities, many of which we can all agree upon. The fact that we can agree on so much is a bright spot in the function of this chamber and our government. However, in some cases, we continue to see the same proposals from this Administration that we will never support—proposals like taking disability benefits from veterans by rounding down the cost-of-living adjustment—to pay for other veterans’ programs. 

VA’s budget does not contain the proposed cuts to its programs and benefits that we see in other parts of the President’s fiscal year 2020 budget request. Yet, we cannot forget that cuts to important safety net programs like SNAP benefits, Medicare, and Medicaid, and the agencies responsible for providing them have serious impacts on the lives of veterans and their families who depend on those benefits, and place a greater strain on VA’s resources when they are not available to veterans in need.

Although VA’s budget reflects an overall increase of 9.5 percent over fiscal year 2019 appropriated levels, I remain concerned about whether this budget reflects appropriate levels of funding to implement the VA MISSION Act, address VA’s Information Technology needs, provide the blue water navy veterans exposed to Agent Orange disability and healthcare benefits, make student veterans affected by the most recent for-profit school closings whole, and address veteran suicide—including an alarming trend of veterans committing suicide on VA campuses.

We are all aware of the significant challenges at VA. Our task today is to ascertain whether this budget request goes far enough to address these challenges, and whether funding has been prioritized to best support the needs of veterans.

For example, with passage of the MISSION Act, implementation of the law and providing coordinated community care has been a focus of the Department. However, funding for this program and the prioritization of this program must not be done at the expense of addressing VA’s significant workforce and infrastructure needs. Based on the Congressional Budget Office’s cost projections, we do not know if this budget request goes far enough to cover the projected cost of this program—an estimated $47 billion over 5 years—without pulling resources from other VA programs. 

The hasty roll out of IT systems and programs like medical surgical prime vendor without involving the clinicians and users of these systems or having the leadership and governance in place has led to disruptions in services, and we are afraid problems with the delivery of care and benefits to veterans may continue without the appropriate leadership commitment, expertise, and resources. Most recently we witnessed this with a disruption to student veterans’ GI Bill housing stipend benefits. 

VA includes a hefty increase of $426 million to prevent veteran suicide. Yet, last year, VA spent only $57,000 on suicide prevention outreach to veterans. It took oversight from the Inspector General and this Committee to get VA back on track. The budget request includes an additional $15 million for suicide prevention outreach, and if VA receives this funding, I intend to closely monitor spending of these funds to ensure every last cent is spent to get the word out to veterans in crisis. If we are to be successful in preventing 20 veterans from taking their lives each day, veterans must have easy access to VA mental health care, and they must know that VA is ready and immediately available to help when veterans need it most. 

VA must be prepared to provide disability benefits and healthcare to the blue water navy veterans who have been waiting over 40 years for their benefits. It must invest in its workforce—including recruitment of providers to fill the 48,985 vacancies in the Department—and address severe morale issues at some facilities. VA contracting has now been added to the Government Accountability Office’s High Risk List, and the Veterans Health Administration has remained on the list since 2015.

These challenges play out each day at the D.C. VA Medical Center—practically footsteps from the White House. The D.C. VA was in the news again last night because of low morale, severe understaffing, and a dysfunctional medical supply chain. Meanwhile, the clinicians and front line staff at that hospital make due with limited resources and support to provide high-quality and timely care to veterans. We want to know which funds in the budget are requested to address these challenges.    

Student veterans who have been robbed of their GI Bill benefits and time by predatory for-profit schools must be made whole. The recent closings at Argosy campuses have left thousands of veterans in limbo. Congress was forced to step in two years ago to restore benefits to veterans affected by for-profit schools closing like ITT Tech and Corinthian, and we may have to do it again—but the Department has a role in preventing these schools from taking advantage of veterans in the first place. We need to know how VA’s budget addresses this problem.

Finally, we need to understand the Administration’s rationale for the proposed $17 million cut to VA research, and 45 percent cut to VA’s construction budget which is contrary to what our veteran service organizations recommend. I have invited them here today so that they can weigh in on what they believe to be the appropriate funding levels and priorities for VA.

These challenges I are not insurmountable. As I said in our last hearing, we are here to work with VA as a partner to ensure VA can meet these challenges now and in the future. To do that, we need transparency from VA so we can have an open and honest dialogue about the resource needs of the Department. Today we are here to conduct oversight so that Congress, veterans, and the American people understand our investment in VA, and ensure the funds we provide are used to support the needs of veterans.  

I now recognize Ranking Member Roe for 5 minutes for any opening remarks he may have.