Obama pledges two-year budgets at VA

This has given hope to veterans groups, federal unions and lawmakers like Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii — chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee — that next year could witness an about face in the way the VA gets funded.
“The fact that [Obama] supports this means action in the next Congress is very likely,” said Akaka spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke. “If they knew their budget in advance they could make hires and advances and improve IT.”

A coalition of nine veterans’ groups, called the Partnership for Veterans Health Care Budget Reform, is calling for VA budget reforms because only twice in the last 14 years and only three times in the last 20 has the VA budget been approved by the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1. The fiscal 2009 budget, approved Sept. 30, was one of those rare on-time budgets.

The nine groups propose that Congress pass a VA budget a year ahead of time, which would mean that in 2009 lawmakers would need to pass both a fiscal 2010 budget and a fiscal 2011 budget.

AFGE officials are hopeful this will happen.
“You can’t say to a hospital that your funding will be three months late,” said Marilyn Park, AFGE’s legislative representative. “No hospital in the world would operate under such a system.”

Akaka introduced in September a bill to provide advance funding for VA. The bill attracted 10 bipartisan co-sponsors — including Obama and his election opponent Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.— but it was introduced too late to go anywhere.

Rep. Bob Filner, chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs committee, introduced a similar bill on the House side late in the session as well.

Still, advocates of the proposal see roadblocks.
Van Dyke said there could be opposition from other agencies that would also want advance appropriations.
Park of AFGE said Congress’ focus on the economy and other crises could divert attention from VA, though Van Dyke said he expects Obama’s support could speed up the legislative process.

Delayed budgets hurt veterans because they make it harder for VA to plan capital improvements and buy major medical equipment and also to hire additional workers, said Joseph Violante, national legislative director of Disabled American Veterans.

Another benefit of advance funding is that veterans’ programs would get a first slice of the federal budget, without having to compete with other federal programs, he said.

Obama pledged the day after his election to fully fund VA and to establish a “world-class VA planning division” so that future budgets are more accurate, according to documents posted temporarily on Obama’s transition Web site, www.change.gov.

Congress passed two years of appropriations for the Defense Department in the 1980s. That plan backfired, however, when department officials asked for multiple changes to the second year’s budget, requiring Congress to rewrite the appropriation. DoD hasn’t received advanced appropriations since.

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