WASHINGTON — Congressional appropriators are pushing a huge increase in spending for the Department of Veterans Affairs, despite some resistance from the White House.
Prompted by concerns that the VA can't adequately care for soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as older veterans already in the system, Congress is instructing the VA to push more money toward treatment of mental health and traumatic brain injuries.
A report by McClatchy Newspapers on inadequate treatment of mental ailments among veterans was specifically mentioned by Congress.
In recent days, appropriations bills for VA spending have moved through the House of Representatives and await a full-Senate vote. While there are slight differences between the bills, they call for a total of about $43 billion in health care and other discretionary VA funds — an increase of more than $6.5 billion, or about 18 percent, over the amount enacted for fiscal 2007, and substantially more than the president's proposal.
The White House last week said the congressional efforts involve an "excessive level of spending" and that the president's proposal of about $39 billion gives the VA "ample resources."
If Congress insists on increasing the VA budget, the White House said in a statement, it must cut other parts of the overall budget, ensuring that total spending remains under a certain level. If it doesn't, the president said he would veto other unspecified spending bills to bring the overall package in line.
But with broad support in both houses, Joseph A. Violante of the Disabled American Veterans said the VA budget appears safe. "Now we have to hold them accountable," he said.
The bills increase the president's request for mental health treatment, for building maintenance and for hiring workers to speed the processing of disability claims.
The House bill includes an extra $604 million for new initiatives in treating mental health, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. It includes an extra $508 million for maintaining and renovating buildings.
The spending increases were spurred in part by complaints from veterans' groups and media coverage of poor or inconsistent treatment of America's veterans.
On Feb. 11, McClatchy Newspapers revealed how the VA's mental health spending was insufficient, leaving wide disparities in services and access. House and Senate Veterans' Committee members cited McClatchy's report as they urged Congress to boost mental health spending.
A week later, stories in The Washington Post prompted a major scandal as they detailed substandard care and poor maintenance at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Although Walter Reed is a Department of Defense facility and not run by the VA, Congress is giving extra money to the VA to avoid similar problems in its medical centers.