Veteran programs, construction funding clears Congress
The first package of spending bills that will fund the government for the next fiscal year heads to the White House for signature this week.
The package, which includes funding for Energy and Water, Military Construction and Veterans’ Affairs (VA) and the Legislative Branch, was approved by the Senate on a 92-5 vote and the House by a vote of 377-20.
Passage of the bills marks the first time in more than 10 years that Congress has sent more than one appropriations bill to the president’s desk prior to the end of the fiscal year.
The legislation includes provisions appropriators say are needed to strengthen oversight and accountability at the Departments of Defense (DoD) and VA.
These include reports on the status of VA claims processing, an ongoing Government Accountability Office (GAO) review of the development of the VA electronic health record, quarterly VA reporting and committee investigative staff review of the conversion of the VA financial management system, quarterly briefings on large construction projects that are managed outside of VA, limiting funding transfers between construction projects, limiting changes in the scope of construction projects, and restricting certain spending actions without notification to Congress.
The bill also includes funding for oversight offices in VA, as requested, to protect whistleblowers and provide increased accountability through investigation of poorly performing managers and instances of inferior patient care.
These offices will support the secretary’s authority to fire or demote poorly performing employees and to recoup pay, benefits, and awards in cases of malfeasance.
The bill provides a total of $10.3 billion for military construction projects.
In addition to this amount, $921.4 million is provided in Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding for projects in countries with ongoing U.S. operations and the European Deterrence Initiative.
The bill provides:
- $1.6 billion to fund construction, operation, and maintenance of military family housing.
- $352 million for construction and alterations for new or existing military medical facilities.
- $267 million for essential safety improvements and infrastructure work at four DoD Education Activities facilities located within the U.S. and overseas.
- $465.3 million for construction or alteration of Guard and Reserve facilities in 20 states and territories.
- $171 million for the NATO Security Investment Program (NSIP) for infrastructure necessary for wartime, crisis, and peace support and deterrence operations, and training requirements.
The legislation also included language that prohibits the closure of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station and a provision to prohibit funding for any facility within the U.S. to house detainees.
The legislation includes a total of $208.8 billion in both discretionary and mandatory funding for VA, an increase of $12.1 billion above the fiscal year 2018 level.
Discretionary funding alone for VA programs in the bill totals $86.5 billion, an increase of $5 billion above the fiscal year 2018 level. \
- VA Medical Care – The bill funds VA medical care at $72.3 billion. Within this total, funding includes: $8.6 billion in mental health care services; $206 million in suicide prevention outreach activities; $589 million for traumatic brain injury treatment; $7.5 billion in homeless veteran’s treatment, services, housing, and job training; $400 million for opioid abuse prevention; and $270 million in rural health initiatives.
- VA “Mission Act” Funding – The bill includes a $1.75 billion increase in additional discretionary funding above the already provided advance appropriations to support ongoing health care programs, as well as programs authorized in the VA Mission Act, such as community care, support for caregivers of veterans, and other medical services.
- VA Electronic Health Record – The bill contains $1.1 billion for the new VA electronic health record system. This will ensure the implementation of the contract creating an electronic record system for VA that is identical to one being developed for DoD.
- Disability Claims Processing Backlog – The bill provides $46 million above the 2018 level for the Veterans Benefits Administration, which will be used for hiring additional claims staff, digital scanning of health records, and overtime pay. The bill also includes $14 million above the 2018 level for the Board of Veterans Appeals to reduce the backlog of appeals. In addition, the bill continues reporting requirements to track each regional office’s performance on claims processing and appeals backlogs.
- Construction – Major and minor construction within the VA is funded at $1.8 billion. In addition, $2 billion is provided for infrastructure repair, with the funding allocated to major and minor construction and non-recurring maintenance. Within the additional $2 billion in infrastructure funding, $750 million is targeted to seismic corrections at VA facilities nationwide.
- VA Mandatory Funding – The bill fulfills mandatory funding requirements such as: veteran disability compensation programs for 5.3 million veterans and their survivors; education benefits for almost one million veterans; and vocational rehabilitation and employment training for almost 150,000 veterans.
- Arlington National Cemetery – The bill includes an additional $33.6 million for planning, design, and construction of the Southern Expansion at the Cemetery.