Emphasizing that a nation’s budget reflects its core priorities, a senior Veterans Affairs Department official said the proposed 10 percent fiscal year 2014 budget increase for VA and the fact that the department is specifically sheltered from sequestration demonstrate America’s unwavering commitment to its veterans.
Tommy Sowers, assistant VA secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs, recognized strong support for veterans programs that continues to cross party lines, even in tough budget times.
“Veterans and veterans issues [have] been something Congress has been able to come together on,” he said during an interview last week with American Forces Press Service.
“In Washington, one of the maxims is, ‘Show me your budget and I will tell you what you care about,’” Sowers said. “And if you look at the budgets of these Congresses, this president, and what they have fought for, America cares about their veterans.”
VA health care services, education funds and disability benefits are exempt from mandatory spending cuts that kicked in March 1 with the onset of sequestration. And the proposed $152.7 billion VA budget for fiscal 2014, announced yesterday, reflects continued commitment to VA funding that has increased more than 40 percent since 2009.
Sowers, a former Special Forces soldier who served in Iraq, said the president and VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki fully understand that VA’s requirements will continue to grow after a decade of conflict.
“We see that already,” Sowers said. “Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have utilized VA health care [and] have filed more claims as a percentage than any generation before them.”
Fifty-six percent of the 1.5 million veterans of operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom are enrolled in and using VA health care, compared to 35 percent of the entire veteran population, he noted. In addition, 900,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are used the post-9/11 GI Bill, which provides financial support for education and housing.
To meet their requirements and those of other veterans, the fiscal 2014 VA budget request includes large increases for mental health and other health care programs and information technology aimed at eliminating the claims backlog, improving efficiencies and expanding access to programs, he noted.
The budget also includes increased funding aimed at eliminating veteran homelessness, which Shinseki is committed to achieving in 2015.
The goal, Sowers said, isn’t simply to implement quick fixes.
“We want to put in long fixes – do the transformational things that are needed to move this department into the 21st century,” he said.
“So when you look at that budget, I think it is a clear recognition by the president, by the secretary and by Congress: We know we have asked a very small percentage of Americans, not just in this war, but in wars past, to carry that burden,” Sowers said. “And that shows bipartisan commitment to our veterans.”