Chair Heinrich Opens MilCon, VA Appropriations Subcommittee Hearing To Review FY23 Budget, FY24 Advance Budget Request For VA

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies opened a hearing to review the Fiscal Year 2023 Budget and Fiscal Year 2024 Advance Appropriations Requests for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

VIDEO: Chair Heinrich Opens MilCon, VA Appropriations Subcommittee Hearing

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis R. McDonough is the witness.

Testimony and an archived video of the full hearing will be available here. 

Senator Heinrich’s remarks as prepared for delivery are below.

Good afternoon. 

This hearing of the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee is now called to order.

I’d like to begin by welcoming Denis McDonough, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

We appreciate the efforts of VA’s dedicated staff to provide care and support to veterans, their families and communities every day, and especially their efforts during the pandemic.

It greatly expanded its telehealth capacity, and adapted its essential services including housing, education and training to better serve veterans, including those experiencing homelessness.

Today we will discuss the Department of Veterans Affairs’ fiscal years 2023 budget and 2024 advance appropriations requests.

Veterans deserve the quality care and benefits they earned.

This budget strives to do that and requests a mandatory appropriation of $161 billion and a discretionary appropriation of $135 billion, which reflects a higher reliance on VA care and greater utilization of benefits and services than prior years. 

It also requests a $155 billion mandatory advance appropriation, as well as a $128 billion discretionary advance appropriation to support its medical programs in FY 2024.

The cost of medical care across private and public sectors continues to rise.

Although the pandemic is a factor, these requests continue a trend of large increases in VA medical care that reflects growing demand for both in-house and community care.

Veterans are relying on VA for more care today than ever before, which highlights the improvements in VA’s medical care system.

This year’s budget request displays VA medical care as a separate and unique category from other non-defense discretionary spending – in VA and across the Government.

Each year, the Appropriations Committees must balance VA medical care with non-defense priorities across the Government.

This display reflects that there has been significant growth in VA medical care accounts over time, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, and that these costs, which are supported across the political spectrum, should not come at the expense of other critical programs.

We hope to discuss the decision to change the Budget display, as well as many other issues today.

There are a few areas of the budget I would like to highlight.

The health effects of military environmental exposures can take years, if not decades, to manifest.

The Budget proposes to increase efforts in this area, including provision of healthcare, research efforts, reviewing benefit claims, and implementing new presumptions of exposure and service connection for certain chronic conditions. 

The Department has published new regulations expanding presumptive eligibility for 9 new diseases, but as the Senate considers new legislation to further support veterans who experienced military environmental exposures, there will be more to do. 

The budget before us did not anticipate enactment of this legislation, which will require significant resources.

I look forward to fully understanding your estimates for this legislation.

In March, you released your recommendations to alter VA’s medical care infrastructure to the Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) Commission for review.

Although they include many opportunities to modernize care, recommendations to close facilities will take away much needed resources from already underserved communities.

We have already spoken about the impact of those proposals on New Mexico’s veterans, and I hope to discuss that a bit more today.

Beyond the Asset and Infrastructure Review, the Budget reflects VA’s need to invest in physical infrastructure.

Veterans deserve to be treated in facilities that are up to date, modernized, and have the most cutting edge technology.

In addition to proposed increased investments in all construction and maintenance accounts, the Budget included a legislative proposal to allow VA to move forward on 31 pending leases, as well as simplify the process for entering into future leases. 

These efforts will not only improve existing physical infrastructure, but expand much needed capacity to serve veterans.

I fully support authorizing action on this effort.

The budget continues robust funding for its telehealth program, with an estimated $4.8 billion for fiscal year 2023.

However, even with expanded hiring and telehealth capacity, veterans in rural areas often struggle to access health care, including due to challenges with transportation and lack of internet access.

As more than one-third of veterans enrolled in VA healthcare live in rural or highly rural areas, I continue to encourage VA to do more to close these access gaps.

During the pandemic, VA used base and supplemental funding to undertake tremendous investments to protect veterans who were homeless or in danger of becoming homeless.

This included strategies including temporary housing, rental assistance, improved access to care, and employment services.

Based on the most recent PIT [Point-in-time] Count numbers, these efforts seem to have been quite successful.

The budget requests $2.7 billion to continue and build upon these efforts.

Last year, you undertook a strategic review of the Electronic Health Record Modernization program.

Following that review, a new leadership team took over and VA deployed to its second site in March.

VA also expects the independent life cycle cost assessment to be completed in the coming months.

We look forward to working with the Department – and with Cerner, as this must be a joint effort – to make sure this investment stays on track going forward, and that the full costs of the initiative are understood.

It is clear that much is expected from the Department – providing healthcare requires facilities, technology, and clinicians, and quickly providing benefits requires staff and more technology.

For the Department to succeed in these efforts, you must be resourced appropriately.

I look forward to working together to provide veterans with the services and benefits they have earned and deserve.