VA budget plan includes new office focused on preventing harassment and promoting diversity

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Veterans Affairs officials will create a new office focused on diversity and harassment prevention as part of the White House budget plan for fiscal year 2022 unveiled on Friday, which also includes major funding increases to improve health care. mental health and ending homelessness.

The total budget request of nearly $270 billion would represent an increase of more than 10% over current year spending levels and a 9% increase in discretionary funding ($117.2 billion) for the department.

It represents another significant boost for a department that has seen steady budget growth over the past two decades. In fiscal year 2001, the VA budget was approximately $45 billion. In fiscal year 2011, it was about $125 billion, nearly triple that total. Ten years later, in 2021, the department’s budget was nearly double again, at $245 billion.

That total does not include the additional $18 billion proposed under President Joe Biden’s U.S. jobs plan, much of it for infrastructure improvements at VA medical centers across the country.

In a statement, White House officials said the spending plan “will ensure that VA moves quickly and smartly into the future, with much-needed monetary investments in our most successful and vital programs.”

It also includes the creation of a new Office of Resolutions Management, Diversity and Inclusion.

Biden and VA Secretary Denis McDonough pledged to make VA programs more inclusive for minority veterans and women. Officials said the new agency would oversee the department’s diversity programs and create “a robust harassment prevention program” in response to concerns about the department’s sexual misconduct policies.

The department has come under heavy criticism in recent years for a series of sexual misconduct scandals. In 2018, a report by the Government Accountability Office found that around one in four women working at VA said they had experienced sexual harassment or abuse, and one in three employees said they had witnessed an act of harassment. sexual misconduct.

Last year, dozens of Democratic lawmakers and veteran advocates demanded the resignation of then-VA Secretary Robert Wilkie over his mishandling of a congressman sex abuse complaint while she was visiting the Washington, DC VA Medical Center.

Biden and McDonough pledged “zero tolerance” for such incidents. The new office would also oversee the implementation of several new diversity and anti-harassment initiatives approved by Congress in recent months.

On the medical front, the budget plan calls for a significant increase in mental health care spending next year, up about 13.5% to more than $10.7 billion. Awareness of suicide prevention in particular would nearly double, from about $287 million this year to a proposed $598 million in fiscal year 2021.

Suicide prevention has been a top priority for the department in each of the past three presidential administrations, but the suicide rate (about 17 veterans per day) has remained frustratingly stable over the past decade despite increased financial resources.

Homelessness prevention and support programs would increase 14.5% under the plan, topping $2.6 billion. Federal authorities have estimated that around 37,000 veterans are homeless each night, a figure that is half the level of a decade ago but has risen slightly in recent years.

Gender-specific care spending would also increase in the budget proposal, by about 12% to over $700 million.

The costs of paying carer allowances are expected to rise by nearly a third next year as more veterans are added to the scheme.

In fiscal year 2020, when the program was only open to veterans who served after 9/11, spending on the program was approximately $500 million. Now that the program has expanded to include veterans who served before 1973, spending is expected to top $1.5 billion in fiscal year 2022.

Lawmakers are expected to debate the budget proposal over the next few months, with the aim of passing a final version by the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1. However, this White House budget plan is the last to arrive in history, likely pushing the final shift in the spending plan to later in the year.

The VA budget is not seen as a hotly debated topic in Congress, even with the large funding increases in recent years. But approval of the department’s budget has repeatedly been blocked in recent years due to unrelated spending disputes among lawmakers.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, DC since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned him numerous accolades, including a 2009 Polk Award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism Award, and the VFW News Media Award.

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