WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional Democrats on Thursday sharply criticized President Donald Trump's proposed budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs, saying it would harm veterans by rapidly expanding private care while neglecting core VA hospitals and programs.
The report from top Democrats on the Senate and House committees overseeing the VA pointed to proposed double-digit increases to expand veterans' access to private doctors as funding for VA services remains mostly flat. Not included in the budget plan, for example, is money to overhaul VA's electronic medical records system or reduce a massive appeals backlog — major VA initiatives touted by Trump.
The initial budget proposal also seeks to cap the amount of educational benefits veterans receive under the GI bill and halt "individual unemployability" benefit payments to out-of-work disabled veterans. Veterans' organizations are opposed to cuts.
"The president's budget takes benefits from veterans who have sacrificed the most and those seeking health care from the VA," said Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, noting that private-sector care tends to be more scarce in rural parts of the U.S. "Balancing the budget on the backs of veterans — especially disabled and elderly veterans — is a nonstarter to me."
He was joined by Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee, as well as Reps. Tim Walz of Minnesota and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who sit on the respective House committees.
Trump's budget proposal calls for a 3.7 percent increase in total VA funding, one of the few agencies slated for more money amid big-time cuts to other departments. But the bulk of the VA increase will pay for rising health care costs, and in particular a revamp of a Choice program to give veterans more access to outside providers.
Republican lawmakers have generally praised the proposed overall increase for VA, but also questioned aspects of it. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs' Committee, wants the VA to reduce the appeals backlog more quickly. A House appropriations committee, meanwhile, advanced bill language for the next budget year without the proposed cuts to disability benefits.
VA Secretary David Shulkin in recent weeks has acknowledged budget gaps, telling Isakson's committee Wednesday the VA would need an additional $800 million if the government wanted to clear the massive backlog of appeals from veterans unhappy with their disability payouts.
Shulkin says the VA is not yet requesting money for an overhaul of its electronic records system, expected to cost more than $4.3 billion as it negotiates a no-bid contract with Cerner Corp.
And the VA warned this week it faced an unexpected budget shortfall of more than $1 billion for its Choice program. It is urgently asking Congress for authority to tap other parts of its budget to cover costs, including $620 million in carry-over money that it had set aside for use in the next budget year beginning Oct. 1. Shulkin did not rule out taking money from VA hospitals.
Major veterans' organizations have been critical of Trump's proposed budget, citing in particular the proposal to reduce some disability benefits for thousands of veterans once they reach retirement age. The American Legion describes the funding trade-offs as "stealth privatization."
In response to initial criticism, Shulkin said Wednesday he would reconsider cutting the disability benefits. But he has cautioned that due to a tightening Trump administration budget, future increases to the VA budget cannot be assumed.
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