VA funds to surge as troops return

Budget plan includes 5.3 percent hike for mental health and health care.

The plan calls for VA spending to grow 10.5 percent to $140.3 billion in the next fiscal year, up from $126.9 billion this fiscal year. The proposal comes as other segments of the military prepare for big cuts.

The White House wants to spend more on mental health services, health care needs of women veterans, and $1 billion over five years on a Veterans Jobs Corps to put 20,000 former soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to work.

The jobs would focus on building roads and trails on public lands.

The budget places a priority on medical research in traumatic brain injury, post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and suicide prevention. It also designates $1.4 billion, a 33 percent increase, to battle homelessness among veterans, and more money on vocational rehabilitation and employment for wounded or ill service members transitioning to the civilian work force.

“It’s good news,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who noted much of the federal budget faces proposed cuts. “The president has done the right thing and made sure veterans are not just protected, but see some real upgrades.”

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio and a Senate Armed Services Committee member, said he’s “committed to ensuring that our veterans have access to the quality care they deserve. I will thoroughly review the (Obama) administration’s plan for the VA to ensure that the department is run as effectively as possible.”

A surge of 610,000 men and women from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the nation’s other 21 million veterans, are expected to seek VA services.

U.S. Army veteran Don McCauley, 79, of Beavercreek, said more dollars makes sense for Miami Valley veterans returning from two wars overseas.

“I think that’s very good because they have all these guys coming home and it’s going to make it harder on the VA and they need all the money they can get,” said McCauley, a member of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8312 in Beavercreek.

Herbert Davis, executive director of the Montgomery County Veteran Services Commission, said the president’s intiatives are “much needed.”

“We have far too many veterans who are falling through the cracks and are in homeless situations and in need,” he said.

Tom Istvan, 66, of Huber Heights, called the proposed budget increase an election-year decision.

“I think he’s just trying to get some favor with veterans,” said Istvan, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Huber Heights chapter and an Air Force veteran. “When he first got elected, veterans were no big deal to him.”

Dennis DeMolet, a disabled Marine Corps and Vietnam vet who lives in Kettering, said the additional spending would bolster initiatives to treat veterans with PTSD and help to train for and find a job, among other expectations. One program would provide veterans who meet guidelines a year of training and education to gain employment, said DeMolet, an ex-chairman of the Small Business Administration Advisory Committee for Veterans Business Affairs.

“That’s never been done before, it’s unheard of, and it’s marvelous,” he said.

Davis said veterans sometimes have difficulty translating military jobs into civilian skills to gain employment. But on the homefront, the jobs picture has improved for many former servicemen and women recently.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded a 7.5 percent unemployment rate for veterans in January, a decline from 9.9 percent for the same time the previous year. Veterans who have served since 2001 saw the biggest drop, to 9.1 percent last month compared to 15.2 percent in January 2011, figures show.

U.S. Rep. Steven Austria, R-Beavercreek, whose district has more than 60,000 veterans, more than any other in Ohio, said his constituents have complained the VA takes too long to process medical and pension claims. Vets have indicated it can take as long as a year to handle a medical claim and six to nine months on a pension issue.

The VA says it has a goal to reduce waiting time for disability claims to no more than 125 days with at least 98 percent accuracy. The agency says it hopes to eliminate the backlog by 2015.

Those with the highest disability claims are the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, who have a rate of 8.5 disabilities per veteran, a rate almost double from conflicts of previous eras, according to the VA.

“I would say one reason it might be higher is that we’ve been at war for a long time,” Davis said. “I just think we have a larger number of people who have been exposed for a longer period of time for multiple deployments.”

Obama’s budget will face the scrutiny of the GOP-dominated House and Democratic-controlled Senate. Brown said changes are possible.

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