Forthcoming omnibus may include 3 long-awaited veterans policies

Though lawmakers still haven't unveiled the final text of an omnibus spending package for the rest of fiscal 2018, veterans organizations and members of Congres...

Veterans organizations and top lawmakers are urging congressional leadership to include a series of long-awaited legislative policy updates for the Veterans Affairs Department.

As of Tuesday afternoon, lawmakers were still hashing out the details of a major omnibus spending package. Congress must pass an omnibus — or its sixth continuing resolution of the fiscal year — to avoid another government shutdown on Friday.

But most leaders on the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees said they wanted to attach three major VA proposals to the omnibus spending package: a plan to consolidate VA’s community care programs into one, integrated network, a systematic review of VA’s aging infrastructure and facilities and an expansion of the department’s caregiver assistance program.

The resolution of all three of these issues, much less one of them, would be a significant win for VA congressional leadership.

Senate VA Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Ranking Member Jon Tester (D-Mont.) reached an agreement with House committee Chairman Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) on the three proposals over the weekend.

“I urge your support for the inclusion in this week’s omnibus spending bill of the bipartisan, bicameral deal that Chairman Isakson, Ranking Member Tester and I have achieved,” Roe wrote in a March 20 letter to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Eight major veterans service organizations, including the American Legion, AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, Military Officers Association of American, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans for America and the Wounded Warrior Project, also voiced their support for the three proposals.

“While no compromise is ever perfect, we believe that the language to consolidate and reform VA’s community care programs, to systematically review and strengthen VA’s infrastructure and to provide greater fairness and support for caregivers of disabled veterans from all era would be major improvements for the men and women who served, their families and survivors,” the organizations wrote in a letter to top congressional leaders.

The veterans service organizations (VSOs) said the plan to consolidate VA’s disparate community care programs into one, integrated network “represents a balanced approach” to ensuring that veterans have access to timely care.

While the details of this plan are still unclear, it would likely resolve some of the more pressing questions over the future of the Veterans Choice Program.

Both the House and Senate VA committees spent much of 2017 working with the Legion and other veterans service organizations on a variety of ideas detailing a future VA Choice program, but lawmakers in both chambers punted the issue to 2018.

Meanwhile, veterans service organizations recently described the prospect of VA privatization as a “very real issue.” The White House submitted its own suggestions on new legislative language to include in the Senate bill.

VA Secretary David Shulkin told members of a House appropriations subcommittee last week that the department has $1.1 billion left in its Choice program account as of March 6. Those resources will likely run dry by the end of May or the first or second month of June, he added.

Roe has been championing the asset and infrastructure review, or “AIR” process, since the fall. He made changes to his original proposal after more discussions with veterans organizations and his other colleagues. The revised asset review process would give VA more time to gather data and conduct market research on its facilities and would let members from three VSOs serve as “commissioners,” Roe said. A nine-member commission would review the department’s current medical facilities.

Roe’s asset review proposal originally cleared the House VA Committee along party lines back in November. Democrats, at the time, criticized the push to move forward on asset review before finding a compromise on the future of the VA Choice Program.

Expanding VA’s comprehensive assistance program caregivers of seriously injured pre-9/11 veterans would another significant win for VSOs, who have been advocating for this change over the past year.

House lawmakers were supposed to unveil the text of the 2018 omnibus Monday night but pushed the timeline back to Tuesday evening. The current continuing resolution expires Friday.

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