The Department of Veterans Affairs' medical budget will see a 22% increase this coming year under the sweeping government spending bill released early Tuesday morning.
Lawmakers are set to approve $118.7 billion for veterans medical care for 2023, which is $21.7 billion more than was approved for 2022 and is equal to the amount requested by the VA earlier this year.
Combined with funding for the Veterans Benefits Administration, medical and prosthetic research, construction programs and the electronic health record system, the bill gives the VA a total of $134.7 billion in discretionary funds, which is $22.5 billion above 2022 but $328.7 million below the administration's request.
Separately, the spending bill, known as an omnibus, also includes $5 billion in so-called mandatory spending for a new account called the Cost of War Toxic Exposures Fund that was created to implement the PACT Act, the bill passed earlier this year that expanded benefits and health care for veterans exposed to toxins during their military service.
The VA funding is part of a $1.7 trillion deal reached by House and Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans to fund every federal agency for the remainder of fiscal year 2023, which started in October. Congress is expected to pass the bill by Friday, ending the months the government has been running on a stopgap spending measure that kept the government open by extending 2022 funding levels, but prevented spending on new programs and initiatives.
The bill will also provide $858 billion for defense, matching the level authorized in the defense policy bill Congress cleared last week.
The funding for VA medical accounts includes $13.9 billion for mental health care, $2.7 billion for homeless assistance programs, $1.9 billion for the caregiver program and $840.5 million for women's health care.
While the omnibus boosts VA spending, a policy priority for many veterans was left out of the bill: the Afghan Adjustment Act.
The proposal would provide a pathway for Afghans evacuated to the United States last year to apply for green cards after undergoing security screenings. Veterans and Afghans have been camping outside the Capitol and visiting lawmakers' district offices to push for the measure's inclusion in the omnibus, but Republicans objected to including it in the bill over what they argue was insufficient security vetting of the evacuees.
While the Afghan Adjustment Act was not included, the omnibus does include an extension of the Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, program for Afghans who helped the U.S. military after an extension was left out of the defense policy bill, raising fears the program would end in a year. The omnibus extends the SIV program through 2024 and adds another 4,000 visas.
Within the $858 billion for defense is $278.1 billion for operations and maintenance. That includes $1.8 billion more than requested for sustainment, restoration and maintenance accounts, the funding used to fix issues such as moldy barracks.
The bill also includes $19 billion for military construction, including $2 billion for military family housing. The housing funding includes money to "increase oversight of privatized housing," which has also had issues with mold, according to a Democratic House summary of the bill.
The bill itself includes no language on extremists in the military, but the report accompanying the bill directs the Pentagon to brief relevant congressional committees on actions taken related to extremists or criminal groups. The report does not carry the weight of law, but directions for briefings are typically honored.
The omnibus also includes $45 billion for military and humanitarian aid for war in Ukraine, expected to be the last major infusion of U.S. cash for a while after Republicans take control of the House in January. The funding, which adds to the $65 billion Congress has allocated since the war began in February, includes $11.8 billion to replenish U.S. weapons being sent to Ukraine and $7 billion to support U.S. troops stationed elsewhere in Europe.
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.