Through a decade of war, Congress has pumped billions of additional dollars into new benefits and programs for veterans. They deserve them, lawmakers say. Helping vets also is popular with constituents.
Veterans' service organizations have lobbied for these benefits, but with the expectation that newly authorized programs would be fully funded.
Last year, even as the once-steady stream of extra dollars for the Department of Veterans Affairs slowed to a trickle, lawmakers continued to add new programs. And veteran groups are getting nervous.
They worry that VA, burdened with new "unfunded mandates," has no other choice but to launch these new programs and pay for them by dipping into dollars needed for other services veterans already rely on.
Recent bills enacted that weren't fully paid for included the important caregiver law for families of the most seriously disabled veterans and expansion of female veterans' health benefits, including single parent childcare services, at VA medical facilities.
Joseph Violante, legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, raised the touchy issue last week at a hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee where lawmakers and lobbyists considered the merits of 35 new bills aimed at helping veterans.
Violante acknowledged that delegates to Disabled American Veterans' own convention last August passed numerous resolutions in support of a lot of the bills now before the committee or even enacted into law late last year.
"However, as Congress considers authorizing new programs or enhancing or expanding current programs," he warned, "it is essential that they do so in manner that does not have negative effects on existing programs and services."
New committee chairman Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., opened the hearing by touting her bills to lower veterans' unemployment (S 951), and expand assistance to homeless veterans through improved grants, per diem, health care and case management services (S 1148).
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., advocated for his bill (S. 277) to extend eligibility for VA hospital care, medical services and nursing home care to as many as 600,000 veterans and family members stationed at Camp Lejeune during years well water there was contaminated.
Another Burr bill (S 423) would incentivize veterans to help deal with the backlog of claims by allowing VA to pay disability benefits retroactively, for up to one year before a claim is filed, if the submitted claim is deemed "fully developed" to allow a swift decision.
VA opposes the bill. Veterans service organizations had mixed reactions. Raymond Kelley with Veterans of Foreign War said VFW likes the concept but sees a few problems including possible legal liability for veterans service organization service officers who help to develop veterans' claims.
Burr was the only senator at the hearing to acknowledge the looming national debt crisis, noting that the bills under consideration "would collectively spend billions of dollars" even as the country faces "staggering deficits and debt and is on a fiscal path that is simply unsustainable."
So the committee must weigh affordability in deciding what bills to approve during mark-up at the end of June. Burr added, however, that government auditors believe by ending "overlap" in federal programs, current services could improve and still save taxpayers billions of dollars a year.