House Clears Funding Bill for Veterans Medical Care
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May 27, 2005 - The House this week completed action on legislation funding the Department of Veterans' Affairs for fiscal year 2006. The legislation includes record increases for treatment services for veterans living with mental illness. In particular, for the first time, Congress has chosen to set a minimum funding requirement for veteran's medical care with respect to mental illness treatment services. This effort was motivated out of concern that the VA needs to do significantly more to address the growing needs of veterans living with mental illness.
The legislation, known as the FY 2006 Military Quality of Life and Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill (HR 2528), represents the first step in the process of funding the VA. The measure now moves on to the Senate, which is expected to take up the bill later this summer.
Legislative Report Urges Making Mental Illness Treatment Services in the VA The legislative report accompanying HR 2528 contains specific language directing the Department of Veterans' Affairs on how the fenced off funds for mental illness treatment services are to be used. This legislative direction to the VA is almost unprecedented and represents a clear direction from Congress that mental illness treatment is to be an elevated priority for the agency. In addition, the report notes that this direction is being put in place with the support of the Department's Undersecretary for Health.
Specifically the language dictates that not less than $2.2 billion is to be designated for mental illness treatment services. This is out of a total projected FY 2006 budget for veterans' medical care of $20.995billion, a $1.6 billion increase above FY 2005 and a $1 billion increase above the President's request. The VA itself estimates that specialty mental health services in the VA will top $3 billion this year and that the entirety of health care supporting veterans with mental illness(both mental illness and general medical care) will soon approach $10billion.
More importantly, the legislative report accompanying HR 2528 - which has now been endorsed by the full House -- goes on to state:
"The Committee has taken the unusual action of fencing a portion of medical services funding for one category of treatment because the Committee recognizes the need to dedicate resources to such treatment and wishes to be assured that funding for mental health care will not be siphoned off for other purposes during the year of execution."
Congress Urges VA to Increase Funding for Mental Illness Research In addition, this spending bill also calls on the VA to make mental illness research a higher priority and specifically chides the VA for dedicating only 7% of the total VA medical research budget of $784 million for mental illness research (estimated at $56 million in FY 2005). Further, the legislative report, the House Appropriations Committee notes a consensus among experts that mental illness will be the most pressing problem for the VA. The report goes to note:
"The Committee believes that more effort into research will lead to earlier identification of problems and more effective treatment, thereby reducing the long-term complications and costs associated with mental health issues. As a goal for fiscal year 2006, the Committee believes the Department should dedicate at 20% of its research budget to dealing with the issues of mental health diagnosis and treatment. The Committee directs the Department to establish this goal and work toward achieving the goal by focusing investments in facilities with mental health specialization."
Finally, the report sets forth a specific timetable for the VA to report back to Congress on how this 20% goal is to be reached, including plans for addressing any deviation from progress towards the goal. Again, this specific direction from the House Appropriations Committee represents an unprecedented effort by Congress to ensure that mental illness research becomes a top priority for the VA.
NAMI would like to offer thanks to key leaders in Congress who made the increased funding for mental illness treatment and research a reality. In particular, NAMI is grateful for the efforts of Military Quality of Life Subcommittee Chairman James Walsh of New York and Ranking Member Chet Edwards of Texas.