Chairwoman Wasserman Schultz Statement at Hearing on FY 2021 VA Budget Request

2020-03-04 10:30

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 2021 budget request for the Department of Veterans Affairs:

Good morning. This morning we hold the hearing for VA’s fiscal year 2021 budget request. We welcome the Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, who is joined by Dr. Richard Stone, the Executive in Charge for the Veterans Health Administration, Dr. Paul Lawrence, the Under Secretary for Benefits of the Veterans Benefits Administration, and Mr. Jon Rychalski, the Assistant Secretary for Management and Chief Financial Officer.

This hearing is an important chance to look at VA’s budget request and ensure that we best meet the needs of America’s veterans.

The Fiscal Year 2021 Department of Veterans Affairs budget requests a total of $238.6 billion. Within that total, $104.8 billion is for discretionary funding, which is a 12 percent increase over last year. Of that amount, VA is requesting a $2.3 billion increase in medical care over and above what was provided in advance appropriations last year for a total of $10 billion over fiscal year 2020 levels. While some of that funding will support critical programs, such as MISSION Act implementation, a large portion of that request is for new, non-essential initiatives.

It’s one thing to request additional funding for rising healthcare costs, it’s another, completely fiscally irresponsible thing, to request funding for new initiatives in this tight fiscal environment.

On top of additional funding requests for medical care, the Department also requested an increase of $2 billion in other VA programs for a total discretionary increase of $12.9 billion.

We all understand it is an election year, and in a perfect world, without budget caps, this fantasy budget request is great. We would love to be able to provide veterans with the most care and benefits money can buy over and above current VA services. However, we are in a world with budget caps, and those caps were agreed to and signed into law by the President.  And what is frustrating, is the Administration knows this and is essentially using our nation’s veterans as pawns in a political game.

In accordance with the budget agreement, Fiscal Year 2021 only has a net increase of $2.5 billion for the entire federal government for all discretionary programs. That is all the available increased funding for all non-defense discretionary Appropriations bills. And VA wants $12.9 billion in new funding with only $2.5 billion in new dollars available for the whole government. The math just doesn’t work.

If I came home one day after a difficult family budget discussion with my husband the previous month, whereupon we agreed to monthly limits on our discretionary family spending, and then, in front of our children as their birthday approached suggested to him that we buy them each a new car, how should I expect him to react? Mr. Secretary, where you and I come from, as the expression goes, “that dog won’t hunt.” VA’s budget request is impossible without completely slashing and cutting all other Departments, which I would like to add, our veterans also rely on.

The only way to make the President’s budget work is to get a cap adjustment for the MISSION Act. We have bipartisan, bicameral agreement on the need for a budget cap adjustment for the MISSION Act. Last year, MISSION Act cost $8.9 billion, this year it will cost $11.6 billion, and the costs will continue to rise in future years. Unfortunately, the Administration has adamantly refused to make this vital accommodation, and so I once again urge you, Mr. Secretary, to make this case to the White House and OMB.

In addition to the MISSION Act, we are closely looking at the work VA is doing to implement the new Electronic Health Record system. We held a hearing on this just last week and reviewed the delays, detours, and disappointing communication with Congress and between the stakeholders that has surrounded this project.

This comes at a time when our veterans are facing significant health care challenges that are also deserving of our focus. For example, I am pleased to see that this year’s budget builds on the record work the Committee did last year in focusing on gender-specific care for women. The upward trends of women in the military and the increased number of women choosing VA for healthcare means that the need and the cost associated with their care will grow. So, we must make sure we are providing appropriate care, as well as safe and supportive environments, for women who come to the VA.

There is also more we must do to improve mental health for veterans and prevent and reduce suicides in our veteran population. This is an issue of medical care, of staffing, of procedures, and of outreach – to name a few. It is a major concern for myself and for the Committee, and I look forward to discussing how we can make sure we’re meeting this need and improving on past failures.

In the coming weeks, we will be holding a hearing that digs deeper into these issues of women’s health, mental health and suicide prevention, not to mention other pressing issues like whole health and homelessness. As the nation’s largest integrated health care system, VA has an important role to play in these health crises, and it is Congress’ job to make sure you have what you need to succeed.

Aside from health care, VA is undertaking a number of initiatives to implement laws like the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act and the Forever GI Bill, as well as continue to develop an operating infrastructure that best serves our veteran population and their families.

We clearly have a lot of ground to cover today. Thank you all for being here this morning, and I look forward to your testimony, Mr. Secretary.

116th Congress