JOHNSTON: Congress must put veterans’ funding first

Those who serve the nation deserve the same in return

From the very first days of the founding of these United States, we have entered into a sacred compact with those who risk their lives to protect our freedom: When your service is over, you will return home to a grateful nation.

That gratitude is made tangible by the health care system, disability compensation, education, transition and other benefits and services provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Unfortunately, this sacred compact has reached the breaking point, with the VA — and the veterans it serves — finding themselves stuck in the partisan gridlock that has paralyzed Congress.

During 22 of the past 25 years, veterans appropriations bills have failed to pass by the start of the new fiscal year, and delays often last for months. Over the past five years, as partisan divisions have reached new lows, veterans appropriations bills were enacted 124 days late, on average.

October’s government shutdown made matters worse. Work stopped on more than 250,000 claims awaiting appeals, burials at national cemeteries were scaled back, and critical medical and prosthetic research projects were almost suspended.

For the VA, appropriations delays and shutdowns make it virtually impossible to efficiently administer benefits and to implement strategic improvement plans. Indeed, the repeated failure to enact appropriations in a timely manner is itself one of the causes of the massive backlog of veterans’ disability claims.

The VA is now making important progress in reducing this logjam, but another year or two of delayed appropriations would undercut ongoing efforts to modernize that broken system.

Beginning Tuesday and extending during the next month, thousands of veterans will be coming to Capitol Hill to let Congress know that “enough is enough — it’s time to keep the promise to America’s heroes.”

Members of our three organizations are meeting and calling their representatives and senators, urging them to end gridlock for veterans by passing the bipartisan Putting Veterans Funding First Act, which would authorize advance appropriations for all VA programs, benefits and services.

In 2009, Congress passed advance appropriations for VA medical care services. In the four years since, it has proven a great success.

The VA knows what its medical care funding situation is well before the start of each fiscal year, there are no delays, and veterans were able to receive the health care they needed even during the October shutdown.

The Putting Veterans Funding First Act simply extends the same common-sense process to all other VA functions, including the administration of disability and pension benefits, information technology, construction, medical and prosthetic research, and cemetery administration.

This urgently needed bill has already been overwhelming approved by the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees. All that’s needed now is a decision by each chamber’s leadership to bring it to the floor for votes by the full House and Senate.

For a Congress that has struggled to pass much significant legislation, this ought to be an easy one — an approach both parties can support to fulfill our promises to the men and women who served.

Indeed, the impact of the Putting Veterans Funding First Act will extend far beyond the technical improvement of the appropriations process. What it really means is that our veterans will have their disability claims processed more expeditiously and will receive their benefits faster.

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