Senate committee OKs advance funding for VA

The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee approved an advance appropriations bill Thursday by unanimous voice vote without dissent. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, the committee chairman, said the proposal “has the potential to strengthen every aspect of VA’s national health care system.”

And with every major veterans group backing the idea; with President Barack Obama and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki on board; and with 47 cosponsors in the Senate, Dickinson said Senate passage seems virtually assured.

“It would be stunning if Congress or the Administration backed away from advance appropriations now,” he said.

Under Senate rules, it takes 50 votes to pass a bill but 60 votes to overcome procedural hurdles if determined opposition tries to block a measure. The 47 cosponsors make the proposal very close to passage as long as no one steps forward to hold it up.

In the House of Representatives, a similar advance appropriations bill has about 100 cosponsors to date, far short of the 218 votes needed to assure passage in that chamber. Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, is planning a late June vote on a VA funding initiative that is still undergoing changes to attract more support.

Dickinson is not the only one who thinks the initiative is close to unstoppable. Raymond Dempsey, national commander of Disabled American Veterans, said the Senate vote is encouraging. “There is no reason why Congress shouldn’t move quickly to pass this legislation, which provides a sensible, no-cost way to permanently end the chronic delays in funding for veterans health care.”

The bill passed by the senate committee, S 423, is called the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act. It authorizes, beginning in fiscal 2011, the approval of two years of funding for veterans programs instead of the traditional one. The second year would be advance funding for medical programs, including health care services, support and facility costs. Advance funding would be based on projections of costs, including patient load and funding to cover increased medical costs.

The U.S. Comptroller General would be responsible for overseeing both how the estimates are made and how the money is spent, a safeguard against low-balling the budget. The report on the adequacy and accuracy of the projections would be made public, allowing for open debate about whether the funding is sufficient.

Veterans’ groups are pushing the measure because of concerns that lapses in funding that happen when Congress doesn’t pass funding bills by the start of the fiscal year — which has been the case in 19 of the past 22 years — hurt the quality of medical care because veterans’ medical facilities delay purchases of equipment and supplies and postpone hiring when they are not sure they are going to have full funding.

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