The VA and DoD Don't Have a Funding Problem. They Have a Mismanagement Crisis.

A soldier deposits funds into a safe in a finance office at Bagram Air Field
A soldier deposits funds into a safe in a finance office, Nov. 4, 2013, at Bagram Air Field, Parwan province, Afghanistan. (Sinthia Rosario/U.S. Arm)

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The $328.1 billion 2024 budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs is the largest in agency history. President Joe Biden's 2025 budget for the VA asks for yet another increase to $369.3 billion.

If enacted by Congress, the 2025 proposal would represent a 668% increase in the VA's budget since 2001 and, although over half of the department's annual budget goes toward mandatory spending like disability compensation, the question remains: Have these historic levels of funding translated to improved outcomes for our veterans?

While it is reassuring to see strong governmental commitment to address the challenges veterans face, the VA and other federal agencies need to ensure this funding benefits the people it is meant to serve. We owe it to veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors to make sure these resources are used effectively to improve all aspects of veterans' well-being. If the money is spent on overhead and outcomes don't improve, then it's all for naught.

Our veterans are facing overlapping challenges and need strong support to overcome them. Take veteran suicide: The statistics have remained stagnant for years. Ten years ago, 17.7 veterans killed themselves per day. In 2021, the most recent year for which data is available, that number was 17.5, despite heavy VA focus -- and funding -- on the issue.

Veteran homelessness has likewise been unaffected by more money. The rate of veteran homelessness increased by 12% from 2022 to 2023, even as more funding was allocated to the VA and organizations to combat the problem.

Recognizing that more money does not always mean better results, what can the government do to not waste its resources for veterans? For starters, it can improve the transition to civilian life process from the Department of Defense to the VA; continue using community care and local nonprofits that serve as a relief valve when the VA can't serve veterans in a timely manner; and partner with corporations to develop new ways to support veteran employment.

Nearly 250,000 veterans transition back to civilian life each year. While this change is never easy, it's made even more difficult by a confusing and fragmented system involving both the VA and DoD. The Transition Assistance Program (TAP) gives veterans a cookie-cutter assessment that doesn't always match with veterans' individualized needs, and service members often fall through the cracks for lack of a warm hand-off between the DoD and VA. In fact, a report from the Government Accountability Office found that 70% of service members transitioning to civilian life did not start TAP at least 365 days before separation, as required by law. As a result, veterans find themselves navigating the hardships of transitioning without preparation, education or support.

The VA should also look to other resources to get veterans the support they need. For instance, there are federal services that help veterans find employment in the civilian workforce and programs like the HIRE Vets Medallion Program that recognize organizations that hire veterans. There are also nongovernmental organizations and nonprofits like Hire Heroes that work in the private sector to do this work. But the VA could improve connection between these disparate efforts and take a more nimble and creative approach by working directly with organizations to employ veterans and understand the skills that they are looking for in candidates.

Rather than be mired in bureaucracy to the detriment of the veterans it is tasked to serve, engaging and collaborating with the private sector will allow the VA to be more entrepreneurial when it comes to the veteran employment pipeline. These partnerships can also make government contracts more accessible for veterans by streamlining hiring processes and equipping them with the civilian skills they need to succeed in the professional world.

As a retired veteran myself, I know how difficult transitioning can be without strong support. And through my work in veteran organizations such as Mission Roll Call, I see how invested so many Americans are in the success of our veterans. Ultimately, this funding increase for the VA comes from tax dollars, and it's up to the DoD and VA to ensure that it goes toward the causes that Americans care about. For the VA to simply ask for budgetary increases comes off as self-serving rather than veteran-serving. The VA and the DoD must work together to ensure veterans get every dollar that this budget promises, through clear support channels during and after transitions.

-- Jim Whaley is the CEO of Mission Roll Call. He is the former director of communications at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. As a 20-year veteran of the Army, his awards and decorations include the Master Army Aviator Badge, Legion of Merit, Air Assault Badge and Humanitarian Service Medal.

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