The White House wants to double spending on construction projects for the Department of Veterans Affairs next year while steering some of that new money to a major expansion of the VA hospital in Lakewood.
The proposed VA budget for 2016 includes $1.1 billion for major construction projects at veterans hospitals around the country, up from $562 million this year. It’s intended to help the beleaguered agency catch up to increasing demand for its services from veterans of the recent wars and from older generations of veterans accessing expanded benefits.
The VA’s American Lake campus, a fast-growing site within the VA Puget Sound network, would get $11 million for a project that would include the construction of a new outpatient clinic and a seismic renovation of its main primary care building.
Lawmakers said the funding request is a step forward for a $161.7 million project that would add some 70,000 square feet of space for primary care and specialty services. The VA would hire at least another 54 full-time employees to staff the additional space, according to budget documents.
“The South Sound is not in good health until our veterans’ needs are met, and these improvements are a big part of that mission,” said U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, whose district includes the Lakewood hospital.
Meanwhile, two other large construction projects are underway at VA Puget Sound’s Seattle campus. One is a $220 million mental health facility and the other is a $44 million parking garage.
The money follows several years of accelerating growth at VA Puget Sound. The network cared for 97,000 patients last year. It anticipates enrolling about 110,000 patients by 2018.
The VA first earmarked money for the American Lake expansion in 2009 when it set aside $5 million to design the new facilities. Budget documents do not indicate when the project is scheduled to break ground or when it’s expected to be finished.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she was encouraged that the American Lake projected appeared to advance in the budget request. “I’m going to be fighting for those resources as the budget process moves forward, and I am hopeful that the Republican majority will work with me to get this done,” she said.
The Obama administration’s proposed budget for 2016 would allocate a total of $168.8 billion for the VA, up from $97.7 billion in 2009.
The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee is scheduled to discuss the budget request at a hearing next week. Rep. Jeff Miller, the committee’s Republican chairman from Florida, has been skeptical about VA funding requests, indicating VA leaders could face tough questioning.
“If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last year, it’s that VA numbers can’t be trusted,” he said in a written statement.
Last week, VA Puget Sound announced it is hiring 124 additional employees over the next two years. Money for those positions will come from an agency overhaul Congress adopted last summer following allegations that some VA hospitals had misrepresented data on long delays that veterans faced receiving medical care.