The White House has requested nearly $270 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs budget for fiscal 2022, a 10% increase from 2021 that would fund priorities including the agency's caregiver programs, suicide prevention and GI Bill modernization.
Under the fiscal 2022 budget proposal, the VA would receive $113.1 billion in discretionary spending, an 8.2% increase from 2021, not including medical care collections.
The dollar figure is the third largest among the Cabinet departments, behind Defense and Health and Human Services. But the percentage increase is smaller than all but two departments -- Justice, with a 5.3% increase, and the Department of Homeland Security, at zero.
VA officials noted, however, that the proposal follows an infusion of more than $36 billion in the past year for COVID-19 relief and recovery. The VA budget also does not include $18 billion in the American Jobs Plan for VA health care infrastructure or $260 million in the American Families Plan for veterans who are parents.
"You can't look at just the base funding," said VA Chief Financial Officer Jon Rychalski during a call with reporters Friday. "We're looking at a potential increase in demand for services, and this administration has risen to the occasion. They've supported our request for the resources necessary."
The 2022 mandatory funding request totals $152.7 billion, an increase of $14.9 billion or 10.8% above 2021. Mandatory spending includes compensation, pensions, disability pay, education benefits and other required outlays.
The proposed budget includes significant increases in funding for mental health care and programs for homeless veterans, to include nearly doubling the budget for suicide prevention programs.
It calls for a $1.5 billion increase in mental health services to address increased demand. According to officials, 29% of patients in the VA health system seek mental health treatment.
The department also requested $598 million for suicide prevention programs -- nearly double that in fiscal 2021 -- with funding marked for a new grant program aimed at preventing suicide; media campaigns and outreach; and $142 million for the Veterans Crisis Line, which officials said is expected to see increased use in the coming years.
The budget also supports expansion of the VA caregiver program in October to include wounded veterans who served between the end of the Vietnam War and Sept. 11, 2001. According to the VA, the program included 21,000 eligible veterans before it was widened for World War II, Korean and Vietnam War veterans; now, it has 43,000. It is expected to grow to roughly 52,000 users in fiscal 2022.
The proposal contains a substantial investment in veteran homelessness programs -- $2.2 billion, including $486 million from the American Rescue Plan -- monies that will support case management and help veterans obtain permanent housing using vouchers.
And it includes $81.5 million for the Digital GI Bill Modernization Effort, a program designed to improve veterans' access to their benefits.
The budget also creates and funds a new Office of Resolution Management, Diversity and Inclusion, part of a $12.9 million effort to increase diversity in the department. The office would manage several new initiatives to improve diversity and "ensure VA welcomes all our veterans, to include women, those of color and whom are LGBTQ+," according to VA.
"This bold budget request by President Biden to Congress will ensure VA is moving swiftly and smartly into the future, with much-needed monetary investments in our most successful and vital programs," VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement released Friday.
With the release of the budget, Congress will now begin the process of deliberations over actual funding and the final language of the spending bill, with a goal to complete it by Oct. 1. In the past several years, however, the House and Senate have not met the deadline for passing most appropriations bills.
The Biden budget is the latest ever released, increasing the likelihood that the VA appropriations bill will not be completed by the deadline.
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said Thursday that he looks forward to hearing from McDonough on the budget proposal, which includes funding for health care, programs and benefits.
But, he added, Congress also will focus on other needs at the VA.
"The White House blueprint includes important tools to combat veteran suicide and prevent homelessness, while also investing in claims processing to expedite benefits for thousands of veterans suffering from bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, Parkinsonism -- three Agent Orange presumptive conditions covered under my Fair Care for Vietnam Veterans Act. These are all steps in the right direction," Tester said. "But as Congress considers this proposal, we also need to continue to ensure VA has the capacity to fill health care vacancies and improve infrastructure."
Historically, the VA funding bill has enjoyed bipartisan support, but House Republicans have begun questioning its largesse. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., the ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and others wrote the House Budget Committee earlier this month, noting concerns with the budget.
"The Administration's request begs the question: At what point does VA become adequately funded?" the lawmakers wrote. "We believe some level of continued annual increases, above general inflation, would be warranted as long as they were supported by demand and demonstrated as necessary to continue this improvement trend."
-- Military.com reporter Steven Beynon contributed to this report.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.