We Live in a Political Bubble

Mary Kilgus, Candidate for Lycoming County Judge

If honoring our veterans is important to you, you owe it to them to inform yourself about current issues in Congress relating to the Veteran’s Administration and its ability to serve our veterans.

Recently I spoke to both candidates for the 12th District, Tom Marino’s old seat. Since my father was a disabled veteran from Vietnam, this is a singular issue for me and I make it my business to make sure congressional candidates are informed. The first thing one has to know is the difference between Mandatory and Discretionary funding by Congress. Mandatory funded programs are Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid. These programs were mandated by acts of Congress and are a part of the initial budget. Then there is discretionary budgeting. Discretionary budgeting means that Congress decides whether and how much to spend on the program each budget year.

The Veteran’s Administration is subject to discretionary funding. Each year (and this is both parties, btw), Congress has hedged on VA funding. This hurts our veterans by the inability of the VA to properly fund healthcare, community outreach, and disabled vets as they should. I think we all agree this should not happen.

The problem is exhibited by simply looking at the current 2019 budget. Recently, a bipartisan committee approved an $86.5 billion budget for the VA, the largest ever. Great news, right? However, it is discretionary funding, and the congressman and women can’t agree on how much to fund.

In a rural community like ours, it is easy to see how a community outreach program and the Choice program benefit the veterans in our own community. I recall dealing with a old veteran in criminal court. It was obvious he was not getting the mental health care he needed. When questioned, he said he had no way to get from Williamsport to Wilkes-Barre where the Veteran's Administration was located. This exhibits the need for local community places for Vets to go.

Recently, a joint congressional conference committee approved $86.5 billion in discretionary funding for VA in 2019, a new high for the department. It’s part of lawmakers’ agreement on a “minibus” of bills, which also include appropriations for energy and water, military construction and the legislative branch.

Congress also agreed to give VA $1.75 billion in discretionary funding to cover community care costs under the VA MISSION Act, which Congress passed last summer. That total is $500 million above what the department originally requested, due to “unanticipated costs in VA’s traditional community care programs,” the conference report on the appropriations bill reads.

Under the Maintaining Internal Systems and Strengthening Integrated Outside Networks (MISSION) Act, VA is supposed to consolidate all previously disparate community care programs into one. The new law builds off a previous one, the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability (Choice) Act, which Congress passed in 2014.

Though Congress has designated funding for the MISSION Act in 2019, it still hasn’t struck agreement over how to fund the program in the long term, meaning lawmakers will likely encounter this debate in future years when budget caps are even less certain.

The new law gave VA an additional $5.2 billion to continue Choice through May 2019 while the department implements the new, consolidated community care program. But the MISSION Act doesn’t authorize additional resources to pay for the new program past May 2019 and into 2020.

That’s right. Currently, there is only money allotted for these crucial programs until May 2019. This is the problem with discretionary funding. If you really care about your veterans, you should care about this issue. One candidate for the 12th looked boggled when I asked him, saying he thought the veterans in his neighborhood wanted good doctors. The other, appearing not to understand mandatory and discretionary funding in Congress, said, “we should support our veterans.” We must demand more from our elected representatives on this issue.