WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump's budget released Tuesday proposes cutting monthly stipends to some disabled, unemployed veterans and reducing veterans' cost-of-living adjustments as offsets to continue a program that allows veterans to seek care outside the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The $186.5 billion budget calls for $2.9 billion in new spending in fiscal 2018, which begins Oct. 1, to fund the Veterans Choice Program, which was created as a temporary measure and allows veterans, in certain instances, to seek health care in the private sector at the VA's expense. Trump's budget also asks for $3.5 billion more for the program in 2019 and every subsequent year.
The increase would bring the total amount that the VA spends through its various community care programs to $13.2 billion in fiscal 2018.
The Choice program -- created in response to the system-wide scandal of veterans suffering long waits for health care -- was set to end Aug. 7, 2017. Congress passed legislation in April allowing it to continue beyond the expiration date with the approximately $1 billion remaining of $10 billion appropriated for the program in 2014.
It's now authorized to continue until it runs out of money. VA Secretary David Shulkin is working on improvements to the program, which has been criticized by veterans and lawmakers as confusing and complex.
"Veterans' access to timely, high-quality health care is one of this administration's highest priorities," the budget states. "The budget provides mandatory funding to extend the Veterans Choice Program, enabling eligible veterans to receive timely care, close to home."
Listed as one of the offsets for the extra cost is a new restriction on compensation for veterans through the VA's "individual unemployability" program.
Currently, veterans eligible for the program have a 60 to 100 percent disability rating through the VA and are unable to secure a job because of their service-connected disability. The program allows them to get paid at the highest compensation rate. For 2017, the monthly rate for a 100 percent disabled veteran living alone is $2,915 per month.
The change, which the budget describes as a "modernization," would stop the higher payments once a veteran who is eligible for Social Security payments reaches the minimum age to receive them. Veterans who have already reached the age to receive Social Security would be removed from the VA benefit program if Congress approves the proposal.
The change would save $3.2 billion for the VA in fiscal 2018, according to budget documents.
Also listed as an offset to the Choice program is a practice to round down cost-of-living adjustments to all veterans who receive disability compensation. The practice was standard until 2013.
The Office of Management and Budget estimates reinstating the round-down policy would decrease payments by a total of $12 annually per veteran. It would save $20 million for the VA in fiscal 2018, the documents show.
The last offset would be to cap student veterans' Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits for flight training. Flight programs tend to be more expensive than other courses of study, the budget states. It proposes capping benefits for flight training at the maximum the VA will provide to students at private schools, which is about $21,000 each year. The cap would save $42 million for the VA for fiscal 2018, according to the budget.
"Through these tradeoffs, VA will focus its budgetary resources on providing veterans with the most efficient and effective care and benefits," the budget reads.
In total, the president's budget calls for $82.1 billion in discretionary spending for the VA, an increase of about 6 percent from fiscal 2017. Once mandated funding is included, the budget surpasses $186 billion.
If passed by Congress, the VA's budget would be another in a succession of increases for the agency. When former President Barack Obama took office in 2008, the VA budget was about $90 billion. In 2012, it was $130 billion.
Shulkin said at a congressional hearing earlier this month that he would not be seeking a budget increase for the VA in future years, but needed one in fiscal 2018 for modernization efforts.
He is set to testify about the budget Wednesday morning before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
"The 2018 budget request reflects the strong commitment of the president to provide the services and benefits that our nation's veterans have earned," Shulkin said in a statement issued Wednesday. "VA has made significant progress in improving its service to veterans and their family members. We are fully committed to continuing the transformation across the department, so we can deliver the standards of performance our veterans expect and deserve."