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Congress extends VA programs to year's end, avoiding budget fight complications

Leo Shane III | Military Times

WASHINGTON — Congress this week finalized legislation to extend a host of Veterans Affairs programs until the end of December, avoiding disruptions in the services while lawmakers sort out budget issues over the next two months.

The measure was approved by the House on Monday and passed by unanimous consent in the Senate on Wednesday night. It now heads to the White House, where President Donald Trump is expected to sign the measure into law in coming days.

Even though lawmakers earlier this month approved a federal budget extension until mid-December, including VA operations, the additional legislation authorizes to continuation of initiatives already paid for in that continuing resolution.

That includes an extension of health care and homeless programs, nursing home care authorities, support services for caregivers, transportation reimbursements, child care assistance, adaptive sports programs and home loan services.

In addition, the bill extends an assisted living pilot program for veterans with traumatic brain injury for five more months, to allow extra time to move participating veterans into other existing programs.

All of those issues would have been covered in VA’s fiscal 2018 budget, if lawmakers could have reached an agreement on federal spending before Saturday, the end of the fiscal year. But Republicans and Democrats still appear far apart on a budget deal.

The VA authorizations are the seventh major piece of a veterans-related bill passed by Congress this year, significant given the scant other legislative common ground on Capitol Hill.

They include a pair of measures related to extending the VA Choice program, an overhaul of VA education benefits, reforms to the VA benefits appeals process, and new accountability rules regarding department staffers.

Lawmakers are hopeful they’ll add at least one more to that list before the end of the year. On Tuesday, VA Secretary David Shulkin said he expects legislation reforming the Choice program to be introduced in coming days. Congress needs to act on that measure before the end of 2017, when funding for the program is expected to expire.