Vet Groups Say VA Budget Underfunds Construction

Veterans groups say the proposed 2015 Department of Veterans Affairs budget fails to address construction and maintenance needs at VA facilities across the country.

A statement issued on Tuesday jointly by authors of the Independent Budget -- a shadow VA budget developed by veterans groups based on what they believe the agency needs -- said proposed 2015 increases in health care and benefits services are appreciated.

"[But] we have concerns that the serious lack of commitment to infrastructure funding to support the system will undermine the VA's ability to deliver those services," the statement said. "Of great concern to the veterans groups is the serious underfunding of VA construction accounts."

Released early last month, the Independent Budget, authored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans and Paralyzed Veterans of America, said the VA manages and maintains more than 5,600 buildings and almost 34,000 acres of land with a facilities replacement value of approximately $45 billion.

While the VA has addressed a number of critical infrastructure gaps, more than 3,900 gaps remain that will cost between $54 and $66 billion to close, including $10 billion in activation costs, the group said.

The VA proposes to spend about $1.2 billion on construction projects next year, which is about $2.75 billion less than what the Independent Budget recommends.

Those same concerns are being voiced by The American Legion.

"We know the VA's construction infrastructure is outdated and needs repair," said Jacob Gadd, deputy director of Veteran Affairs and Rehabilitation for The American Legion.

Gadd also noted that the 2015 VA budget does not allocate funding to cover more than two dozen leases with major medical facilities that must be renewed or placed elsewhere.

"If the VA wants to continue to expand access, those [leases] have to be reflected in the budget," he said. Gadd said the Legion has been working with VA on options, and the VA has been working with Congress, as well, to figure out how to proceed.

A provision in a comprehensive veterans' bill introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., would have provided funding for leases to 27 facilities across the U.S. and Puerto Rico. But that bill failed last month in a partisan vote after Republicans were unable to amend it to include sanctions on Iran.

Another top priority for the Legion, Gadd said, is veteran mental health care.

Gadd noted that a recent VA report found that younger veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars were at a greater risk of suicide than older veterans. "We need to follow up with the VA on this, and how this budget will meet that [mental health] need for these veterans," he said.

The VA is asking for $7.1 billion for mental health services next year, up more than $300 million from 2014's appropriation.

The "big thing to follow up on," he said, will be moves to expand advance appropriation to all VA programs, not just health care.

While that is a priority of the Legion and other veterans service organizations and groups, as well lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, the VA and the White House have not taken a position.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki last year told the House Veterans Affairs Committee that there would have to be a study to determine how advance funding for VA would affect budgeting across the government before he or the administration could offer an opinion on the plan.

But some congressmen and veterans, speaking on background, believe the administration's reluctance has more to do with making sure the VA remains vulnerable to any future threats of government shutdowns. When the Republican-sparked shutdown happened last year, one of the consequences working against the GOP leaders was the fact it nearly stopped disabled veterans from getting their monthly compensation checks.

Legislative language to provide advance funding of all VA operations was also a part of the comprehensive veterans' bill that failed last month.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at Bryant.Jordan@monster.com

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