The Veterans Affairs Department is requesting a budget of $182 billion next year, a nearly $20 billion funding increase designed in part to tackle outstanding health care claims from veterans.
The proposed spending plan unveiled on Tuesday includes nearly $103.6 billion for mandatory programs such as disability compensation and pensions, and more than $78 billion in discretionary funding -- mostly for health care.
VA Secretary Bob McDonald, who is scheduled to testify Wednesday before Congress on the budget request, said the agency now has "one of the greatest opportunities in its history to transform the way it cares for our veterans."
McDonald says the funding will expand health care options to veterans across the country, continue efforts to end chronic veteran homelessness and further reduce the backlog on first-time claims and also on appeals.
Claims appeals, which have increased over the past six years as the VA put more resources and manpower into tackling the first-time claims backlog, is being targeted next year with more money and personnel.
The budget proposes $156.1 million and 922 full time employees for the Board of Appeals, up from about $110 million for a staff of 680 personnel in 2016.
The department's spending plan marks the last one that President Barack Obama will submit as his second term ends next year and amounts to about double what it was in 2009 when he was sworn in.
After the White House released the budget details, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, a Republican from Florida and the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, released a rundown of recent and longstanding department problems, from cost overruns on construction projects to employees not being held accountable for poor performance and alleged wrongdoing.
"I will fight to ensure VA has the resources it needs, but given the complete lack of accountability for the department's string of past financial failures, this budget request will receive every bit of the scrutiny it is due," he said in a statement.
The department budgeted $68.6 billion for health care. Of that amount, more than $12 billion is slated to deliver health care to vets in their community.
Another $8.5 billion is for long-term care; $7.8 billion for mental health programs; $1.6 billion to reduce veteran homelessness; $1.5 billion to treat veterans ill with hepatitis C; $601 million for treating spinal cord injuries and $284 million for traumatic brain injuries, according to budget documents.
The VA expects to spend $725 million for caregivers.
To improve claims processing, the VA is continuing to invest in technology, earmarking $180 million to the Veterans Benefits Administration to enhance its electronic claims system and $143 million to the Veterans Claims Intake Program to continue converting older, paper records, including health records, into digital images and data.
The backlog in first-time claims -- those not acted on within 125 days of filing -- has been reduced from its 2013 peak of 611,000 to about 82,000, McDonald said last month.
Unlike other parts of the federal budget, Congress has authorized the VA to include funding requests one year in advance. As a result, the department included 2018 funding figures that totaled about $174 billion, including $104 billion in mandatory programs, a $1.5 billion increase from the 2017 request, and $470 billion in advance appropriations, an boost of about $300,000 from next year's amount.