VA Eyes $125B Budget for 2011

"Our budget proposal provides the resources necessary to continue our aggressive pursuit of President Obama's two over-arching goals for veterans," Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki said yesterday in a statement. "First, the requested budget will help transform VA into a 21st century organization. And second it will ensure that we approach veterans' care as a lifetime initiative, from the day they take their oaths until the day they are laid to rest."

To speed up disability claims, the White House is proposing boosting processors by more than 4,000. The VA received 1,014,000 claims in 2009 and anticipates 1,319,000 in 2011, in part because of the agency's expansion of the number of diseases now automatically attributed to exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, according to the VA.

The budget, an $11 billion increase over the current year's, includes $60.3 billion in discretionary spending, mostly health care, and $64.7 billion for entitlements, largely disability compensation and pension, the VA said.

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Also included in the budget is $44 million to complete an automated system for processing applications for the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Spokeswoman Katie Roberts told Monday that the project is on target to be finished by December.

One of the biggest items in the budget is $4.2 billion to eliminate and help reduce homelessness among veterans. The figure includes $3.4 billion for core medical services and $799 million for specific homeless programs and expanded medical care, according to the VA, which says that 131,000 vets are homeless on a typical night.

In addition, the proposed 2011 budget includes $5.2 billion for mental health care and suicide prevention, a $410 million increase over the current year's appropriation that would be used to expand inpatient, residential and outpatient mental health services. The plan also calls for making mental health services part of primary care and specialty care. The VA said in a statement that the money will permit the continued expansion of programs for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, and for diagnosing and treating mental health problems and preventing suicides.

Among veterans eyed for expanded care under the 2011 budget are those living in rural America and women.

The budget includes $250 million to beef up health care access to an estimated 3.2 million vets living in rural areas. Some of the money will go toward expanded use of home-based primary care and mental health services, but it will also include an additional $42 million for the VA's "telehealth" program, which permits health care providers to monitor patients daily via phone and telephone-based data transmission. Currently the VA has 35,000 vets in the telehealth program.

With the number of female veterans growing rapidly and many turning to the VA for health care, the agency intends to appropriate $217.6 million to meet the medical needs of women. This is $18.6 million more than is currently being spent on women-specific health programs.

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