Chairwoman Wasserman Schultz Statement at Hearing on FY 2020 Veterans Affairs Budget Request
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 Department of Veterans Affairs' fiscal year 2020 budget request:
This afternoon we hold the hearing for VA’s fiscal year 2020 budget. We welcome back the Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Wilkie and Dr. Stone, the Executive in Charge for VHA, and we welcome for the first time this year Dr. Paul Lawrence, the Under Secretary for Benefits, and Mr. Jon Rychalski, the Assistant Secretary for Management and Chief Financial Officer.
The Fiscal Year 2020 Department of Veterans Affairs budget requests a record high amount of $220.2 billion – of which $97 billion is discretionary funding, which is a 7.5 percent increase over last year.
VA’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget request nearly doubles the VA funding level just ten years ago when the total VA funding was $114 billion, and it is more than four times the amount in 2001, when the total VA funding was $48.2 billion. Needless to say, VA is growing exponentially, and it is our duty and responsibility to spend dollars judiciously and in the best interest of our veterans.
VA has many large and expensive initiatives right now – two of which are implementing the MISSION Act and implementing the Electronic Health Record system to be interoperable with the Department of Defense’s system.
The budget requests $8.9 billion to implement the MISSION Act and $1.6 billion for the third year of funding for EHRM. Together, these two initiatives total $10.5 billion – or roughly one-ninth of the entire VA discretionary budget, and there is still not confirmed leadership in place overseeing either priority. This is hugely concerning to me.
Furthermore, I remain concerned about the effectiveness of the mental health programs and suicide prevention efforts at VA. The budget requests $9.4 billion for mental health services, which is an increase of $426 million over last year, but will that be enough to reach more veterans suffering from mental health issues and to effectively treat them? We need to make sure there is a plan in place to address the complicated mental health needs of our veterans.
There have been too many horrific and tragic incidents at VA lately – veterans have been committing suicide in VA parking lots, and there were two separate incidents at the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center both within the past month. At the end of February, a veteran opened fire in the emergency room, where thankfully, no one was killed, and less than two weeks ago, another veteran committed suicide after they were checked into the Mental Health Ward and checked on every fifteen minutes.
Clearly, there needs to be an evaluation on how to better address the mental health challenges our veterans face and do some things differently because we are still not doing enough.
An average of 20 veterans die by suicide each day, and that number has remained stagnant for too long. We must do more and do better for our veterans.
Lastly, the budget requests $547 million for gender-specific care for women, an increase of $42 million over last year. The number of women using VA services continues to increase as the number of women in the military increases, yet the amount of funding for gender-specific care has not grown very dramatically.
We need to work to continue to increase women’s access to VA facilities and prioritize funding for programs that cater directly to women’s needs.
Thank you all for being here today, and I look forward to your testimony, Mr. Secretary.