Hearings to focus on future Veterans Affairs budget


Michael Reynolds/EPA – The measure, sponsored by Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), did not garner enough Republican votes to waive a VA spending limit established under the budget Congress and President Obama approved in December.
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The House and Senate veterans’ affairs committees are scheduled to hold a hearings this week to discuss funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs and variousissues facing the organization.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki is slated to testify before the panels on Thursday, when he will likely discuss President Obama’s 2015 budget request, which asks Congress to increase VA funding from $63.4  billion to $65.3 billion, including more spending on medical care, assistance for homeless and at-risk veterans and an initiative to help tackle the department’s longstanding backlog of disability claims.

In a joint hearing on Wednesday, several veterans groups, including Paralyzed Veterans of America, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and Disabled American Veterans, are scheduled to testify about a range of VA matters.

Advanced statements from several veterans groups suggest the witnesses will focus on the following issues:

* Avoiding cuts in VA funding as Congress faces pressure to reduce federal spending.

* A perceived lack of funding for VA facilities needs.

* VA healthcare services.

* Caregiver stipends, which currently only go to post-9/11 veterans but not those who served prior to the so-called War on Terror.

* Growing wait times for prosthetics

* Military sexual assault

* Mental health and suicide

* Tuition rates for veterans

The Senate last month rejected a sweeping VA bill sponsored by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) that would have expanded benefits for former service members and repealed a controversial pension cut for future troops.

The measure, which Sanders estimated to cost $21 billion over 10 years, failed to win enough Republican votes to waive a VA spending limit set under the budget Congress and Obama approved in December.

The legislation would have addressed the calls from veterans groups to extend caretaker stipends to former service members who served before 9/11. Among its 140 provisions, it also called for expanding benefits for dental and medical care and educational assistance, among other changes.

Senate Republicans expressed concerns that the bill would cost too much and add more veterans to a system already struggling with long wait times at VA health clinics and the stubbornly high claims backlog, which the Obama administration whittled down last year from more than 600,000 pending cases to about 400,000.

The Senate on Monday unanimously approved a military sexual-assault bill that would : end the “good soldier” defense that takes factors such as service records into account; give victims a say in whether their case are handled in civilian or military courts when their attacks occur off military bases; extend protections to the students in service academies; and require that every promotion of a commander take into account that service member’s record on handling sexual-assault cases.

As for tuition rates, the House this year overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill that would grant in-state tuition for all veterans regardless of where they reside. Reps. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) and Mike Michaud (D-Maine), who head the House Veterans Affairs Committee, sponsored that bill.

(Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Shinseki and the veterans groups would testify at the same hearing. The veterans groups will appear before the panels on Wednesday, while Shinseki will testify Thursday.)

Follow Josh Hicks on TwitterFacebook or Google+. Connect by e-mail atjosh.hicks@washpost.comVisit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics for more federal news. E-mail federalworker@washpost.com with news tips and other suggestions.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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Josh Hicks · March 11