Chairman Takano: “VA’s budget proposal takes critical steps to properly fund priorities that have long needed more attention”
Jenni Geurink (202-819-4684)
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano (CA-41) gave opening remarks at the full Committee hearing entitled, “U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2022." The Committee heard from VA Secretary Denis McDonough, VA officials, and VSO leaders about the Fiscal Year 2022 budget request and how it aligns with VA’s initiatives and priorities.
Full video of the Chairman’s remarks
Chairman Takano’s remarks as prepared:
On May 28th, the Department of Veterans Affairs released its fiscal year 2022 budget request. Notably, this is the first VA budget for Secretary McDonough and the Biden Administration. It lays out the budgetary framework for the entire Department--including the VA health care system, benefits, and memorial programs--to provide support and services promised to all those who served our nation, their families, and survivors.
First off, Mr. Secretary, please extend my sincerest gratitude to all of VA’s dedicated workforce. You all stepped up to serve our veterans during an incredibly tough year—thank you.
VA’s budget proposal takes critical steps to properly fund many initiatives and priorities that have long needed more attention. If we’re going to build back veterans’ trust in VA, we have to start making serious investments in the federal agency meant to serve them. At almost $270 billion, this request represents roughly a 10% increase over the current fiscal year.
While the Secretary will describe the budget request in more detail, I would like to emphasize some important policy priorities that were included in the proposal.
One of my top priorities this year is to continue our work to reduce veteran suicide. I’m glad to see that VA requested $598 million for veteran suicide prevention outreach programs. This is a 92% increase over 2021. VA plans to grow the Veterans Crisis Line by implementing 9-8-8 as the universal telephone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Veteran Crisis Line. VA requested funds to implement the Veterans’ COMPACT Act passed by Congress last year, which contains nine provisions–introduced by both Democratic and Republican members–that form a holistic approach to improving care and enhancing veterans’ mental health and well-being. Critically, this legislation includes my Veterans’ ACCESS Act language, which will provide free stabilization care for veterans experiencing acute mental health emergencies—regardless of whether they are already enrolled in VA health care. VA is also dedicating resources to community-based suicide prevention programs through the Staff Sergeant Parker Gordon Fox Suicide Prevention Grant Program—a 3-year, $174 million program that will issue its first grants in late 2022.
I am also pleased to see that VA’s budget proposal will help VA better address toxic exposure by supporting the hiring of staff to process claims for new Agent Orange Presumptive Conditions and manage a growing backlog of claims. This Committee remains focused on helping veterans suffering from the health effects of toxic exposure, no matter where or when they served. Last month, I unveiled the “Honoring Our Promise To Address Comprehensive Toxics Act Of 2021” to recognize toxic exposure as a cost of war and ensure all veterans can utilize VA care and benefits after being exposed to toxic substances during their service. I look forward to working with VA on this important issue.
VA’s request also takes important steps to ensure that VA is welcoming for all veterans and VA staff who enter through its doors. The budget would increase funding by $12.9 million to strengthen VA’s diversity, harassment prevention, and Equal Employment Opportunity counseling programs. It will also increase funding to ensure compliance with the Deborah Sampson Act to support women veterans.
I’m glad to see VA requested $2.6 billion to reduce homelessness, a 14.5% increase over the prior year, and significant funds to modernize VA’s antiquated IT and medical supply systems.
Let me turn to some areas where I believe Congress should focus its attention as it considers VA’s budget request.
As a Committee, we have to ask if VA’s budget makes strategic sense considering what we have learned from the pandemic. The pandemic upended our lives for the last 15 months and forced VA to reconsider how it operates, even at the most fundamental levels. VA was challenged by, among other things, global supply chain shortages for basic medical items, the need to minimize in-person appointments, and the need to support remote work for thousands of employees.
However, VA persevered in its mission during the pandemic due to the dedicated and courageous service of its workforce. VA hospitals and clinics provided health care to veterans, benefits were paid, and burial services continued. VA further adapted by employing tele-health appointments to reach quarantined veterans and establishing regional readiness centers to fight supply chain challenges. even as VA executed its "4th Mission" in local communities across the country and expanded its reach to non-veterans.
If, as we hope, the current COVID pandemic is ending, we must think ahead to better prepare VA for the next emergency that could disrupt VA operations. We must think strategically about what investments are needed today to improve VA's resiliency and flexibility so it can adapt to the emergency environment of tomorrow.
A second point for consideration is the need for infrastructure improvements. The Administration included $18 billion for new VA infrastructure, a much-needed boost that I support in order to ensure VA has a modern and efficient health care system that works for all veterans. However, the budget must include adequate resources to oversee and successfully manage major construction projects. We cannot repeat the past mistakes that led to delays and cost overruns.
We must also continue to invest in VA’s human capital to improve services for veterans. For example, the Department, especially the Veterans Health Administration, continues to carry too many unfilled positions, sometimes as many as 50,000 vacancies. VA can build new facilities, but if VA does not have the workforce to staff them, then it cannot deliver on our promises to veterans. Complex hiring authorities, non-competitive salaries, lengthy onboarding processes, and other administrative barriers impact VA’s ability to meet staffing needs across all occupations.
The budget proposes some needed steps to strengthen the workforce, but VA must provide basic rights and protections to its entire workforce. The Secretary has re-established what is called “official time,” so that union representatives can support employees who file grievances, appeal decisions, when they find themselves stuck in the bureaucracy. This is a very welcome step.
However, collective bargaining rights must be extended to all VA’s employees, including those nurses, physicians and other front-line health care workers that fall under the Title 38 statute, as I have proposed to do in legislation introduced this Congress.
Finally, we need a Department and budget process that is more transparent and accountable. VA’s proposal includes some very useful steps, such as an increase in resources for Inspector General oversight. However, in the coming weeks, the Committee needs to see more detailed plans for many items in this budget request, as well as how VA plans to spend remaining American Rescue Plan funds.
We recently passed bipartisan language to require more regular budget updates so that we can better understand how funds have been spent and what the need continues to be. There is no question that, as our veteran population changes, VA’s mission must adapt. The budget should reflect that. However, Congress and this Committee must have the ability to assess these plans with a greater level of detail, so that we can better assure veterans and the American public that taxpayer dollars are being directed in the most effective and efficient way possible.
Today on our first panel we will hear from the Secretary and VA’s Chief Financial Officer. On the second panel, we will then hear from several veteran service organizations and the American Federation of Government Employees to get their analysis and input on the budget request. I look forward to their testimony.
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