May 22 2012
By Anne L. Kim, CQ Staff
Senate appropriators on Tuesday easily approved a fiscal 2013 Military Construction-VA spending bill that would meet the president’s funding request for an integrated electronic health record system for the Veterans Affairs and the Defense departments, but unlike a House measure, would not lock up money until certain plans are submitted.
The Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously approved the draft measure 30-0.
“One of the most important issues facing the Department of Veterans Affairs is how to create an electronic health record that is compatible and interoperable with the health records of service members in the Department of Defense,” said Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the panel’s ranking Republican, who said the measure encourages the departments to use open source architecture in developing the electronic record system.
The measure would provide $104 million, the same as the president’s request for the project, according to a committee report accompanying the bill. The report also notes that the panel is “concerned that a detailed plan, including a timeline, benchmarks and total cost has not been transmitted to Congress.”
The report directs the VA to submit to the House and Senate spending panels a timeframe for completing the project as well as a spending plan. It also directs the VA to submit quarterly updates.
House appropriators advanced its fiscal 2013 Military Construction-VA spending bill May 16, which would provide the same level of funding, but would include stricter language in its committee report to lock up 25 percent of the funding until specific development and spending plans are submitted.
Citing “unacceptable” projected backlogs of disability claim appeals at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, Cochran also said the bill would provide $86 million for the board, an $8 million boost above the request, to fund more personnel to help reduce wait times.
Overall, the bill would provide $71.9 billion in discretionary funding for fiscal 2013, which would be $227.7 million more than fiscal 2012 and $465.9 million less than the president’s request. The measure also would provide $74.6 billion in mandatory spending. This would take into account $52.5 billion in prior advanced appropriations for veterans’ medical care.
On top of this funding, the bill would provide $54.5 billion in advanced fiscal 2014 appropriations for veterans medical care.
Compared to current levels, the measure would decrease funding for military construction, military family housing and Base Realignment and Closure while boosting discretionary funding for the VA. Specifically, it would provide $10.6 billion for the military construction and family housing account and $60.9 billion in discretionary funding for the VA.
It also would boost funding for Arlington National Cemetery above both current levels and the president’s request.
Tim Johnson, D-S.D., chairman of the panel with jurisdiction over the bill, called the measure a “bipartisan, balanced and fiscally responsible” and said the subcommittee’s top Republican, Mark Steven Kirk, R-Ill., was “very engaged in the development of the bill.” Kirk suffered a stroke earlier this year and has been undergoing rehabilitation in Chicago.
Before approving the measure, Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said he and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., had “real concerns” about a proposal under the House’s 2013 defense authorization bill (HR 4310) that would move funding for a uranium facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and a plutonium facility in Los Alamos, N.M., into the Military Construction-VA appropriations bill.
The Army Corps of Engineers does not have the experience in handling such large nuclear facilities and shifting the funding under the Military Construction-VA bill would result in competition for funding with other programs under the bill, like base housing and hangars, he said.
“There’s no action needed right now but I want the committee to be aware of it,” Alexander said about his and Feinstein’s objection to the idea of moving the two projects under the bill.
Before approving the measure, the panel adopted a manager’s package of several amendments, mostly dealing with provisions in the committee report. One amendment removes a provision in the report that specifies about $13 million for an unmanned aircraft system maintenance training facility at Naval Base Ventura County’s Point Mugu facility.
The Senate panels’ action follows the House spending panel’s approval of a bill last week that would provide $71.7 billion in discretionary funding. It would provide $54.5 billion in advanced fiscal 2014 appropriations for VA medical programs, the same amount as the Senate measure. It also provides similar discretionary funding levels as the Senate panel for Veterans Affairs and military construction, with $60.7 billion in discretionary spending for Veterans Affairs and $10.6 billion for military construction.