Every year, Congress needs to pass 12 appropriations bills by October 1st to keep the federal government up and running. If lawmakers don't meet this deadline, the government operates on temporary funding or shuts down.
And Congress rarely meets this deadline. In fact, 19 out of the last 22 years, Congress has failed to pass the VA budget on time. When the VA budget is late, the nation's largest health care provider is forced to wait in limbo, relying on stop-gap funding measures. VA hospitals and clinics can't plan for critical staffing and equipment needs, leading to long waits for appointments and rationed care. As a result, 6 million veterans who rely on the VA for health care pay the price for Congress' bickering and inefficiency.
Despite repeated assurances that the VA budget would be passed on time this year, the September 30th deadline has come and gone. And the only thing that's passed is another milestone: 20 out of the last 23 years, the veterans' health care budget is late. This year, the VA is not alone. The only budget that did pass on time was the one that funds salary checks for members of Congress. So Congress gets paid, and vets get stuck waiting. Again.
If Adam Vinatieri missed 20 out of his last 23 field goals, he'd be out of a job, and all of Indianapolis would be outraged. But Congress repeatedly misses the mark, gives itself a pay raise, and hardly anyone notices.
In the last two weeks especially, veterans have fallen victim to government inefficiency at its worst. First, it was thousands of late GI Bill payments and now it's a late VA budget. Congress has spent months debating new government health care plans, and can't even fund the ones we already have. Wait until Glenn Beck hears about this one. His head might actually explode.
With over half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans still serving on active duty and poised to flood the VA system in the next few years, we cannot allow this ineffective funding process to continue.
The only way to ensure the highest quality of care our nation's veterans deserve is to provide sufficient, timely, and predictable funding. In recent years, Congress has delivered record increases in VA funding. And when this year's budget is approved, Congress will have increased VA funding by 15 percent over 2009 levels. But that can only happen if the budget is actually passed.
Ironically, the solution to chronic VA budget delays is wrapped up in this year's proposed budget. "Advance appropriations," or approving the VA health care budget one year in advance, is the top legislative priority for IAVA and many other leading veterans groups in 2009 and is included in the pending budget. Advanced appropriations would provide the VA with many more tools to prepare for the surge of veterans coming home and would put the years of tardy budgets behind us.
The men and women who have bravely served our country should not be forced to wait any longer for the care they have earned. If lawmakers aren't pressured into passing the VA budget and advance appropriations, and quickly, this trend will surely continue. And I'll be writing a similar piece again this time next year. Veterans shouldn't have to play this wait-and-see game, while Congress goes to the bank.
Crossposted at www.IAVA.org.