Spending on the Department of Veterans Affairs has tripled since 2000, totaling $180 billion in 2017 (4.5 percent of all federal spending). The ongoing Global War on Terrorism, beginning in 2001, caused a major spike in veterans seeking healthcare through the VA. But spending per veteran has also tripled from $2,400 in 2000 to $8,800 in 2017. During this time period, annual spending growth has been 6 percent higher than inflation.
Will this explosive cost growth continue? Likely, but to what degree depends on Congress.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently released a report that outlined three financial projections for the VA.
The first projection utilizes the budget office’s current VA growth model – which is heavily reliant on economy-wide inflation – and includes the additional $5.2 billion that was recently allotted for the Veterans Choice Program. The VA Choice program allows veterans to seek care outside of the VA system if wait times or distances prevent timely treatment. In this projection, spending would increase almost 20 percent in the next ten years, from $180 billion to $215 billion. This may seem high, but this baseline projection shows a conservative increase of just 1.6 percent above the inflation rate, a drastic decrease from the historical 6 percent rise.
For the second projection, CBO assumes that additional appropriations will be needed to fulfill the medical care component of the VA Mission Act, or the “Maintaining Systems and Strengthening Integrated Outside Networks Act.” The bill was passed in 2018 to consolidate multiple VA healthcare issues under one bill, which included paying at-home caretakers, financing facility modernization, and continuing to fund the VA Choice Act.
CBO found that simply projecting figures based on current appropriation levels would not satisfy the necessary funding needed to meet the requirements of the new VA Mission Act, partly because the cost of VA Choice is always changing due to fluctuations in private sector healthcare costs at non-VA facilities. For that reason, they formulated scenario two in order to better predict cost growth under the new legislation. Scenario two projects spending to increase by about 33 percent to $238 billion by 2028, which is 2.6 percent above the average inflation rate—still well below 6 percent.
In the third scenario, CBO used a growth model that mirrored the increase experienced over the last decade. VA’s spending would grow by 50 percent in the next ten years, to $272 billion by 2028, but this would still only amount to an average annual rate of 3.8 percent above inflation.
All three scenarios are optimistic, being that they are far below the 6 percent growth above inflation previously seen. But the CBO’s projections still show spending that will continue to grow exponentially even as the total veteran population decreases.
Veterans deserve the best money can buy, but it is imperative that the money our government takes from Americans is used wisely and efficiently. To the contrary, VA irresponsibly mismanages their operations, for example with the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act. In this case, student veterans across the country went without living stipends due to an old and faulty IT system within the department. An agreement was reached that delayed the implementation and helped VA avoid paying millions of dollars in back pay, but this is not an isolated incident for VA, and on many other occasions the department has been forced to pay out millions of dollars extra in taxpayer money to rectify their shortcomings.
Sinking this country into further debt is not an answer, even for a cause so noble and critical as the VA. Raising taxes and burdening our future generations with more debt do not solve the underlying problem of government waste. And rather than simply ask for more and continue operating in such a wasteful manner, departments like the VA must operate more transparently in an effort to utilize their resources most effectively.