President Obama’s 2014 budget will include a 4 percent increase for the Veterans Affairs Department, with $63.5 billion in discretionary funds that will include $300 million for programs to reduce the department’s claims backlog, administration officials said Friday.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said the budget, which will be unveiled next week, will help VA meet demand for services, including bolstering mental health care capabilities and providing incentives for companies to hire veterans.
It also contains funding for VA to complete a computer system to automate claims processing and a program that converts paper-based evidence for claims into a digital format.
“This budget lays out in pretty stark detail the president’s commitment to our vets and families,” McDonough said.
VA has come under fire from former troops and veterans service organizations for operating an antiquated paper-based claims system that currently has 600,000 backlogged files. The average wait time for receiving a claims decision is nine months.
It also has faced criticism over prolonged wait times for getting medical care and appointments and being unable to handle the demand for health care.
Shinseki promised the claims backlog — defined as claims that have taken longer than the VA target of 125 days — will be cleared by 2015, made possible by the computer initiative, called the Veterans Benefits Management System.
“Too many veterans have waited too long. This has never been acceptable to any of us. We are putting in place a robust plan to address this problem.” Shinseki said.
This week, VA saw a slight dent in the number of pending claims, down 2 percent from the previous week; the drop included a 3 percent decline in the number of backlogged claims.
But a week does not indicate a trend, and officials still believe the backlog will grow worse before getting better.
“You will be seeing additions to the backlog in the coming months, but I also know our assessments, as it relates to fiscal 2013, is the backlog additions weren’t as great as we predicted they would be … so assessments have been wrong,” McDonough said.
The proposed $63.5 billion for programs other than benefits and health care is lower than the $64 billion included in last year’s proposed White House budget, but more than the roughly $61 billion the department eventually received after lengthy legislative deliberations.
In addition to new efforts to streamline the claims process, the budget includes a proposal to permanently extend a $5,600 tax credit for employers who hire veterans who have been unemployed for at least six months, and a larger $9,600 credit for employers who hire veterans with service-connected disabilities.
The budget proposes $7 billion for VA mental health care services, a 7.2 percent increase above last year’s approved budget.
McDonough said he understands veterans who have been waiting for years for their claims to be processed will be skeptical that an influx of cash will make an impact.
“We’re not asking everyone to take our word for it. What we are trying to do, with having a budget that reflects increases in the budget, is to lay down, in the clearest way we can, a statement of priorities,” McDonough said.
House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., expressed uncertainty that the additional funds would have any impact.
"If VA could solve its problems by throwing money at them, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Whether it's funding, staffing or information technology tools, Congress has given VA everything it has asked for to overcome perennial challenges such as the backlog and mental health care access."
Miller's committee will have a chance to grill VA officials on the budget proposal during a hearing scheduled for April 11 in Washington, D.C.
"While I have always been supportive of giving VA every available resource it needs to accomplish its mission, the department owes it to America's veterans and American taxpayers to ensure than any budget increases are accompanied by increases in productivity and better service to veterans," he said.