The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a Feb. 15 hearing on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Budget Request for FY 2019.
In his opening statement, VA Secretary David Shulkin, MD, highlighted that the president’s budget request, “provides the resources to continue VA modernization and to respond to the changing needs, with increasing investments in our foundational services, greater access to care, effective management practices, and modernizing the infrastructure and our legacy systems.” Ranking Member Tim Walz (D-Minn.) noted concern that the Administration’s proposed consolidation of VA Medical Services and Community Care accounts appears to be a step towards privatization.
Committee Chair Phil Roe, MD, (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Walz both touched on the Veteran Choice Program legislation approved last year by both the House and Senate VA Committees [see Washington Highlights, Dec.7, 2018]. Chairman Roe noted funding for the program will expire in May and urged moving the legislation forward citing a Feb. 6 JAMA viewpoint, which highlights the need for timely access to care for Veterans. AAMC sent a Feb. 6 letter to the House and Senate VA committees regarding Choice legislation, thanking them for retaining sole-source contracting with academic affiliates and increasing recruitment incentives for providers.
Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) asked how the budget addresses the nearly 35,000 vacant positions for providers and staff. Dr. Shulkin stated that there is no hiring freeze in effect, and that it is “essential that we remain competitive on benefits and salary” to fill positions quickly with properly trained staff.
Reps. Julia Brownley (D-Calif.) and Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) addressed aspects of mental health care. Secretary Shulkin stated that VA will deliver on March 9 a detailed plan to the president in response to the Jan. 9 executive order on mental health access for Veterans. Dr. Shulkin noted that the VA gained 260 mental health providers in 2017. The FY 19 budget proposal “allows us, with an increase of close to $500 million in mental health funding, to fund for an additional 162,000 mental health visits.” The Secretary aims to hire 1,000 mental health professionals in FY 19 to support this need.
Rep. Auma Amata (R-American Samoa) asked, “What role do public or private partnerships play in maximizing VA's use of their budget, especially regarding research in developing mental health care?” Dr. Shulkin responded, “We need to be working with the private sector and reaching out more to see what's out there that can help, particularly with PTSD and mental health issues.”
The committee plans to hold hearings in the coming weeks to focus on specific areas of the FY 19 budget proposal.