Chairwoman Wasserman Schultz Statement at FY 2022 Budget Hearing: Department of Veterans Affairs

2021-04-15 09:58

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Chair of the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, delivered the following remarks at the Subcommittee's hearing on the fiscal year 2022 Department of Veterans Affairs budget:

Today I am pleased to welcome for the first time before this subcommittee, the Honorable Denis McDonough, Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Secretary McDonough is a dedicated public servant, and I know that he is committed to ensuring the very best for America’s veterans.

He is accompanied today by Mr. Jon Rychalski, Assistant Secretary for Management and Chief Financial Officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Department’s discretionary spending request for Fiscal Year 2022 provided a bit of detail on some funding levels for VA’s programs and accounts, but we are all eager to hear more about your priorities and expectations for the Department.

Let me start by saying that overall, the Biden-Harris administration’s government-wide discretionary request reflects  a much-needed reinvestment in domestic discretionary spending, following years of stagnation.

All Americans, especially veterans, will benefit from a government that supports them and that tackles the big issues facing our country, like income inequality, civil rights, access to education and job training, and climate change.

When it comes to veterans specifically, I was pleased to see that the request focuses on some of the areas that are especially critical to veterans today.

Many of these areas are ones that this subcommittee has also focused on in its oversight hearings and with its investments in prior years.

Certainly the biggest piece of the budget request is the $97.5 billion for providing medical care to our veterans, of which $94.2 billion was provided in advance funding in last year’s enacted appropriations bill.

Within those dollars for medical care, the discretionary request highlights increases in funding for women’s health, mental health, suicide prevention, and veterans’ homelessness programs.

These are some of the key areas that this Committee has prioritized improving and expanding in recent years, and they are ones that make a tremendous difference in the lives of veterans.

We recently discussed these very issues at a hearing with some of VA’s clinical and program leaders, so I look forward to discussing these in greater detail during today’s hearing as well.

The discretionary request also highlighted the need for a greater focus on toxic exposures, particularly within VA’s research programs, which is something that I know many of us on this subcommittee care deeply about.

We recently held a hearing on the legacy of PFAS contamination at our military bases, which is just one of the many toxic chemicals that our servicemembers are frequently exposed to during their military service.

That hearing shed light on the need for more research into the health effects on veterans as a result of exposure to PFAS, as well as burn pits, Agent Orange, and other dangers, so it is heartening to see that reflected in the Department’s medical research request.

The discretionary budget request also emphasizes some of the areas that have a big impact on veterans’ experience at the VA, such as claims processing and the Electronic Health Record Modernization effort.

These are two areas that significantly affect veterans’ perception of the VA and how effective it is at meeting their needs, so it is important to get them right.

The Electronic Health Record modernization in particular is a real area of concern. This effort has for years been marked by delays, shifted schedules, and a constant moving of the goalposts.

With the Department’s current “strategic review” underway, I know we all hope that this puts the program on stronger footing, and results in a clear pathway to implementation.

I want to give this review a chance to run its course, but we plan to hold a hearing on the Electronic Health Record program once the review is completed.

We intend to keep a close eye on the progress of this initiative, which through multiple Administrations has been fraught with problems.

Because this was just a discretionary request, and not a full budget, we don’t have a complete picture of all of VA’s needs for the coming fiscal year.

One particular item that was not discussed in the request was infrastructure, and as you know, we held a very informative hearing with VA officials earlier this year to discuss how far and how deep the infrastructure backlog at VA goes.

That’s why I was particularly pleased to see that President Biden proposed $18 billion for VA facility improvements in his American Jobs Plan, and I thank you, Mr. Secretary, for your work on that.  

We have a lot of work ahead of us, on infrastructure as well as on other issues facing veterans.

We need to strengthen and prepare VA for the future, build on our previous successes in helping our veterans recover from the pandemic, and ensure that every veteran, family member, and caregiver receives the care and benefits they deserve.

117th Congress