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Senate panel approves VA tech budget below president's request

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday approved a $3.16 billion information technology budget for the Veterans Affairs Department in its 1,924-page omnibus spending bill -- $144.5 million less than the president's request. The House last week approved the same amount in its 2011 continuing resolution.

Language in the Senate bill bars VA from spending $742.8 million of its 2011 IT budget until Secretary Eric Shinseki or Chief Information Officer Roger Baker certifies and details the costs, including salaries, for VA technology development projects to both the Senate and House Appropriations committees.

The legislation also prohibited any expenditure of IT funds until VA submits to both committees a plan that meets capital planning and investment control review requirements established by the Office of Management and Budget. VA also must submit outlines indicating that every IT project conforms to the department's enterprise life-cycle guidelines.

The Senate committee said it approved an IT budget that was less than the administration's request to reflect delays in rolling out some key projects while VA shifts to a more responsible method of developing systems under new accountability programs established in 2009.

The Senate panel approved VA's full 2011 budget request of $250 million for rural health projects, which includes telehealth programs and mobile clinics. The bill also added $474 million to the $2.2 billion budget for the Veterans Benefits Administration, versus the $460 million the administration requested.

VA will allocate this $474 million increase to add 4,048 claims processing employees, the Senate bill said. Michael Walcoff, acting undersecretary for benefits, told a House Veterans' Affairs subcommittee in June that the department faces a flood of new claims from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. He said claims nearly doubled from 578,773 in 2000 to 1.014 million in 2009, and estimated claims in 2010 would hit 1.2 million, and climb to more than 1.3 million in 2011.

The Senate's omnibus spending bill also includes a $14 million boost in 2011 for VA to hire additional education claims processors to handle an increase in GI bill submissions, as well as $1 million for the Health and Human Services Department to fund rural health care providers' use of VA's electronic health record system.

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