House passes $241 billion 2021 Veterans Affairs budget plan – the largest ever

Abbie Bennett
July 24, 2020 - 1:50 pm

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This story originally published July 6, 2020. It was updated July 9 and July 24 at 1:50 p.m. EST. 

House lawmakers passed a $241 billion 2021 budget plan for the Department of Veterans Affairs, making VA the second-largest federal agency by budget, second only to the Pentagon.

The House approved the 2021 budget plan in a 224-189 vote July 24. All 181 Republicans present voted against the bill and seven Democrats voted against it.  

The appropriations bill continues a nearly two-decade streak of significant expansion of VA's budget. VA is likely one of the only federal agencies that won't see budget cuts for 2021.

Even that plan was nearly double what VA operated with 10 years ago and more than five times what its budget was in fiscal year 2001 when VA operated with about $48 billion.

VA's budget has consistently increased since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The president's budget ask for 2021 included a $12.9 billion increase, or about 10.2 percent more than 2020. 

Though the plan nearly matches the total that President Donald Trump requested in his proposal earlier this year, it could still face significant resistance, since it's coupled with a $10.1 billion military construction funding plan that would block the president from using certain military construction dollars for the southern border wall. The legislation also includes some money to begin renaming military bases honoring the Confederacy, an effort that has prompted veto threats from the White House. 

The VA plan includes a $104.8 billion discretionary budget, about $35 million shy of the president's request, and $12.5 billion in emergency spending for medical services, community care under the Mission Act, medical support and facilities, electronic health records and IT systems.

The House VA appropriations bill also includes: 

  • $90 billion for veteran medical care, up $9.8 billion from 2020, broken down to include $10.3 billion for mental health care, $661 million for gender-specific care for women vets, $1.9 billion for homeless assistance programs, $504 million for opioid abuse prevention, $300 million for rural health initiatives, and $84 million for "whole health" initiatives.
  • $840 million for medical and prosthetic research, up $40 million.
  • $2.6 billion to continue implementing the VA electronic health record system, up $1.1 billion from 2020. After multiple recent delays, the VA Inspector General's Office said the $16 billion EHR overhaul was failing.
  • $1.8 billion for VA construction, up $139 million.
  • $3.2 billion for operating expenses for the Veterans Benefits Administration, up $62 million aimed at reducing the backlog of disability claims.
  • $81.8 million for Arlington National Cemetery, up $1 million.
  • $84.1 million for the American Battle Monuments Commission.
  • $73.1 million for the Armed Forces Retirement Home, down $2.2 million from 2020.

Earlier this year, Congress approved about $20 billion in pandemic response emergency fundinng for VA. As of last month, Secretary Robert Wilkie told lawmakers the department had allocated about $2 billion so far and the rest was in reserve for a potential second surge of the virus. Through June and July, active COVID-19 cases among VA patients more quadrupled. 

House Veterans Affairs ranking member Phile Roe, R-Tenn., said he opposed the $12.5 billion in emergency funding, given the nearly $20 billion VA had already received from Congress, and that much of it had not yet been spent. 

"Congressional budget rules are in place to assure taxpayers that their hard-earned money will be spent appropriately by their government," Roe said in a statement Friday. "Using emergency money to make ends meet rather than making difficult decisions about how best to allocate finite resources is to break faith with those taxpayers and to abdicate our responsibility as lawmakers."

The committee's Democrat leadership said the plan aims to "builds a stronger VA and military and leaves no one behind." 

“This year’s Military Construction and Veterans Affairs funding bill makes critical and serious investments in veterans,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., chairwoman of the.House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies. "Amid a global pandemic, we also made unprecedented VA medical system investments to ensure that every veteran has access to the top-notch health care that they deserve, including historic spending for women veterans, mental health, suicide prevention, research, and homeless prevention."

“With robust emergency funding to address the rising cost of veterans’ health care, we will ensure that those who served receive the care they have earned," House Appropriations Chairwoman Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said in a statement. 

The fiscal 2021 budget for VA and the rest of the federal government still has a long legislative road ahead, including negotiations between the House and Senate to settle on a unified budget, as well as full debate on the floor of each chamber.

VA is not likely in danger from any potential shutdowns snags in negotiations could cause, though. Unlike other federal departments, VA receives much of its annual budget a year in advance to ensure veteran care and support services remain in operation regardless of political fights on Capitol Hill. 

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Reach Abbie Bennett: or @AbbieRBennett.

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