||Each year there are three bills in Congress that military people and veterans are especially interested in: the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the defense appropriations bill, and the MilCon/VA bill which, simply put, authorizes programs and funds the Department of Veterans Affairs.
This year, Congress actually looks like it will accomplish passing all three by the end of this fiscal year, which ends this coming Sunday. The NDAA passed a few weeks ago and last week President Trump signed into law the fiscal year 2019 Military Construction-VA spending bill as part of a three-bill appropriations package.
That legislation included $1.75 billion in discretionary money to pay for the new VA Mission health law. However, lawmakers say the Trump administration has kept them in the dark about the cost of the new law on veterans’ health care, a looming long-term expenditure that could complicate future budget negotiations.
The VA MISSION Act is meant to give veterans more flexibility to seek subsidized health care at private facilities outside the Department of Veterans Affairs. It also changed the program’s funding, leaving it to lawmakers to provide discretionary money each year rather than relying on an automatic, or mandatory, cash stream. That led to a debate over how much the new law will cost in fiscal 2019 and beyond, and how the legislation will be carried out. The administration hasn’t sent Congress a formal cost estimate, according to the joint explanatory statement appropriators released with a bill funding the program.
The members of Congress on the House and Senate appropriations committees still haven’t received details from the administration on the department’s plan to carry out the new law. That means lawmakers aren’t sure if the $1.75 billion, based on a Congressional Budget Office estimate, will be enough to pay for the program until the end of fiscal 2019, or how much the program will cost in later years.
Even if the spending measure has enough money for the program until the end of fiscal 2019, lawmakers will have to determine how much the new law will cost in future years. And that’s important because if more money is needed than has been appropriated or projected to be appropriated to pay for the VA MISSION Act, Congress will either have to borrow more money to pay for it or cut other existing programs because right now it refuses to raise taxes to pay for new programs.