Congress is trying to pass a number of funding bills before the end of the year. They passed the first of these on September 13, a $147 billion package that includes money for Energy Department, the legislative branch and $5.1 billion for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
The bill includes funding for a law that Trump signed earlier this year to allow veterans to seek medical care from doctors outside of the VA system. This is an extension of the Veterans Choice Program, which first became law in 2014. Veterans are eligible to see a doctor outside of the VA network if they meet one of a number of eligibility requirements, including living 40 miles or more from a VA medical facility, not being able to schedule an appointment at a VA facility within 30 days, needing to travel by air or water to a VA facility, facing an excessive travel burden or, lastly, the VA lacking the needed services.
Even with this spending boost for the VA, the government still lacks a long-term funding plan for its community care program. Called the VA MISSION Act of 2018, this program is intended to consolidate a wide number of independent community care programs already in place. Funding has been approved until May 2019, but after that, more debates will need to ensue.
A second funding bill from Congress is also on Trump’s desk. This package amounts to $854 billion in spending to fund the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, Defense, and Education. President Trump has already lashed out against this bill for its lack of funding for building the border wall. How this dispute will affect the first funding bill for $147 billion — the one that includes $5.1 billion for the VA — is unknown, but have no doubt, it’s still a part of the political negotiation game. Also on the table is the possibility of yet another government shutdown if Congress and the President can’t get these bills approved and signed, though Trump has backed off from that threat.
With a government shutdown looming, veterans who are waiting for their claims to get approved — and, more importantly, for their first benefit checks to arrive — may be worried about further delays. If the processing of new claims does get delayed, veterans can at least rest assured that those delayed amounts of money will be paid in the form of VA disability back pay. For veterans in this situation, it’s important for them to check the effective dates on their paperwork since the VA often gets these wrong.
Congress is hoping that both of these bills can get signed by the end of the month, which would be before the midterm elections, prevent a government shutdown and clear the way for the rest of the funding bills to pass before the end of the year. From any veteran’s perspective, funding for the VA is sorely needed, and this bill can’t get signed soon enough.