President Biden recently recalled a the pearl of wisdom from his father, “show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.” This year’s budget request once again shows how much this president – and our country – values veterans, their families, carers and survivors.
The President presents the budget proposal every year, but President Biden’s budget for the 23rd year is special for two reasons. First and foremost, he wants to invest the largest amount ever in our nation’s veterans: $ 301.4 billion for the veterinary care and benefits that veterans deserve. Second, Congress calls for the separation of the Department of Veterans Affairs. This second piece may seem quite insignificant compared to the first, but it is not. It’s a wonderful idea – if Congress approves – that will help veterans get the health care they need when they need it.
Historically, the VA health care budget for veterans has been grouped into a budget category with the budgets of other government agencies, which means that the VA has had to compete for financial resources in the budget process with other non-defense departments and agencies. According to President Biden’s proposal, however, VA health care would be in its separate budget category. This change would send a clear message that VA health care should not compete with other funding needs: it is a sacred duty we owe to those we serve, and we must fulfill that obligation every year.
This budget change is especially important now because the health care needs of veterans are becoming increasingly complex, which means that the cost of VA health care is rising. Since President Biden took office, the VA has paid more attention than ever to more veterans. In addition, VA funding has more than doubled since 2013, and is likely to increase further in the coming years as President Biden provides long-awaited benefits and attention to veterinarians suffering from conditions related to military environmental exposure.
If we maintain a budgetary position amidst this steady growth, we run the risk of under-funding the VA at a time when veterans need us most. Moreover, if we maintain the situation, we run the risk of investing little in other non-defense agencies due to the increase in VA health care. It would be a bad outcome for all Americans – including veterans who are currently directly benefiting from federal programs competing for resources against the VA.
Just look at the Department of Health and Human Services, for example, which rescued many veterans during the pandemic by guiding the development of the COVID-19 vaccine; look at the Indian Health Service, which helps care for veterans of the tribe on a daily basis; and look at the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s efforts to end homelessness veterans, one of VA’s strongest partners. These departments do a great job of benefiting all Americans, and they need and deserve budget investments. But under the current budget structure, investments in veterans’ health care are made at the expense of this important funding for other agencies, which also provides opportunities for veterans and their families.
So it’s time to change.
The creation of a separate budget category for VA health care would establish our country’s commitment to caring for veterans without cutting other non-defense discretionary investments. It would also mean more control over the VA, which we welcome.
After all, most veterans don’t know how many budget categories there are or don’t care; they just want to know if they can get the health care and benefits they get from their service. That is what we owe to them as a nation, and if President Biden approves a proposal for a new budget structure, we will be better able to fulfill that sacred duty for future generations.
Denis McDonough is the 11th Secretary for Veterans Affairs.