No veteran should wait 90 days to see a doctor. That’s unacceptable. So what’s going to happen next year (fiscal year 2015) when the Department of Veterans Affairs needs to serve 170,000 new vets (87,000 new patients and 83,000 combat vets)?
With Congress set to award the VA $2.3 billion less for medical care than is recommended by The Independent Budget – an annual report authored by AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America and Veterans of Foreign Wars – the situation is bound to get worse.
“The real challenge facing the VA, and the root cause of today’s problem, is access rather than quality,” Joseph Violante, national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, said in May during testimony before the U.S. Senate. Surely Congress understands that underfunding the VA creates access problems?
Apparently not. For FY 2015, The Independent Budget recommended $61.1 billion for total medical care, an increase of $3.4 billion over the FY 2014 VA operating budget. In contrast, the Obama administration recommended $58.8 billion, only $1.1 billion above the 2014 amount. Here are the components of the Independent Budget request.
The Independent Budget has requested $49.3 billion for medical services associated with the costs of new patients ($1.17 billion) and additional medical care program costs ($500 million). The veterans’ advocacy groups recognize the VA’s need for expanding medical support and compliance expenditures by $6.1 billion. (Much of this is IT-related. The VA conducted a whopping 95 million unique outpatient visits in 2014 – you wouldn’t want this to be a paper-based system, would you?) There’s also an urgent need for $5.7 billion for medical facilities, including $650 million in nonrecurring maintenance, bringing the total Independent Budget request to $61.1 billion.
Congressional accounting gimmicks exacerbate the underfunding problem. The administration’s appropriation of $58.8 billion includes $3.2 billion in projected medical care collections. Unfortunately, the VA’s collected only $2.8 billion per year in 2012 and 2013, so veterans’ medical care was an additional $1.4 billion too little.
Another smoke-and-mirrors trick helps hide the systematic underfunding of the VA. Year after year, administration budgets include billions in savings under the heading “management and operational improvements.” For 2014 and 2015, these projected but not materialized savings amounted to nearly $2 billion. This, too, compounds the VA’s wait list problems.
If all of this were new, it would be bad enough. But it’s not. Government Accountability Office reports paint a dismal picture of neglect. Over the past decade, veterans’ medical care has been underfunded by at least $7.8 billion. Construction activities were shorted another $9 billion. Money the VA urgently needed but didn’t receive amounts to nearly $20 billion. Not even the Department of Defense would think that’s chump change.
Every penny of that $20 billion is a vet not seeing the doctor, not getting prescriptions filled, not getting counseling, not getting appointments in a timely fashion. Casualties pile up on the balance-the-budget battlefield. Legislators who vote to send troops into battle and then turn around and refuse to support full funding for the VA should be booted out of office. Even if the VA didn’t receive a dime for vets’ medical care, the budget would still be in deficit.
Deficit hawks make an analogy between household debt and the federal debt. It’s a false analogy because households can’t tax and they don’t create money.
The $2.3 billion the VA needs to fully fund medical services means collecting about $2,000 more from each of the 1.5 million households in the top 1 percent. With 1 percent annual incomes averaging $1.3 million, they can afford it. Average annual income of vets? $52,000 (male) and $43,000 (female).
And why does it matter if Congress funded veterans’ care by letting deficits rise? Deficit hawks believe money creation leads inevitably to runaway inflation. Nope. The Fed’s created trillions through the many iterations of quantitative easing. And where’s the inflation? Neither bankers nor money markets think there’s inflation just around the corner – that’s why interest rates are at near-record lows.
No more excuses. Fully fund the VA. Or lace up your combat boots and deploy.
Susan Feiner is a professor of economics and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine. She can be contacted at: