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With Shutdown Looming, VA Secretary Rips Congress for Inaction

In this photo taken Feb. 25, 2016, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald speaks in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
In this photo taken Feb. 25, 2016, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald speaks in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The top official at the Veterans Affairs Department on Wednesday criticized Congress for failing to pass a budget just days before the end of the fiscal year.

The VA requested about $180 billion for fiscal 2017, which begins Saturday. Unable to reach consensus on a federal budget, lawmakers were pushing for a continuing resolution to fund most of the government through early December -- but even that stop-gap measure was in dispute over emergency funding for the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

Without approval of a spending plan, the government faces an Oct. 1 shutdown -- an outcome that last occurred in 2013 over funding for Obamacare. The threat of a shutdown also loomed in 2015 over spending on Planned Parenthood. Congress is expected to leave Washington for a pre-election break starting Oct. 3 and will not return until Nov. 14.

"Congress … why are we fighting about a budget two days before the end of the fiscal year?" VA Secretary Robert McDonald said Wednesday at a caregiver event in Washington, D.C. "We have 550,000 appeals waiting to be judged based on an 80-year-old law. We wrote a new law ... we've given it to Congress, and we can't get it passed even though everyone agrees that it needs to be done."

That new appeals plan would include multiple "lanes" to streamline the appeals process, including quicker disposition options. Some have raised concerns about how the reforms will address the nearly 500,000 already in the appeals pipelinewho are not grandfathered into the new process in the VA proposal. McDonald said at an August event with the American Legion that enacting the proposal would be efficient, and doing nothing would have significant consequences for veterans.

The secretary's remarks kicked off a symposium on veteran caregiver issues by the VA and the Elizabeth Dole Foundation. The event is focusing on practical help for caregivers, who are often former military spouses, and innovations the VA and others are working on to help them support wounded veterans.

McDonald said more than 32,000 caregivers have participated in the department's program of comprehensive assistance for caregivers, which pays a designated caregiver to stay home and assist the veteran rather than hire outside nursing help.

More than 34,000 have also taken caregiver training offered by the department, including 3,400 who have taken a series of four, three-hour courses on problem-solving, self care and dealing with stress, he said.

-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at amy.bushatz@military.com.

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