Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert A. McDonald asked American Legion members in Baltimore on Tuesday to help him push Congress for more money and greater flexibility in how he runs his sprawling and troubled federal agency.
Addressing the national convention of the American Legion, McDonald said the cuts that lawmakers have proposed to President Barack Obama's spending request would undo the progress he said he has made since taking on the job last year, when the department was dogged by a long benefits claims backlog and shaken by a scandal over the manipulation of hospital waiting lists.
"That's why we all need to make sure our voices are heard and that we press forward in putting veterans first, not ideology," he said.
Some 10,000 members of the influential veterans organization are in Baltimore this week for its 97th annual national convention. With about 2.2 million members, the American Legion is a sizable political force. McDonald delivered a statistics-laden appeal to claim successes since he took over the department and to warn of future challenges as he made the case for extra cash.
Obama has requested a 7.5 percent bump in the department's discretionary budget — which is used to fund health care and other programs — but legislators have proposed smaller increases.
McDonald, a West Point graduate and former president of Procter & Gamble, said Tuesday that anything less than the level of funding and discretion over how it is spent sought by the president would hurt the department.
"It leads to a place where the needs of veterans are secondary to ideology," he said. "Where scoring political points and short-sighted budget polices are more important than veterans — a place where VA is set up to fail.
"That's unacceptable to me and it should be unacceptable to anyone that claims to actually care for the sacred responsibility that we as the nation have to care for those who have borne the battle. That's why I'm here and that's why you're here."
McDonald, who started work at the Department of Veterans Affairs in July 2014, said the agency has made significant advances in connecting veterans to health care and in reducing the backlog in disability benefits claims.
He said veterans had 7 million more health care appointments in the last year. And agency figures show that the benefits claims backlog has been cut from about 600,000 in 2013 to 90,000 last week.
But he said some of those gains were made using short-term budgetary tricks or forcing staff to work overtime, measures that cannot be carried on indefinitely.
In the long term, McDonald said, the department faces significant challenges as the average age of veterans increases, driving up their health care needs and the number and complexity of benefits claims. He said improved battlefield medical care means that even younger veterans often have major long-term health care needs and disability claims.
At the same time, he said, the VA is struggling with facilities that in some cases are almost a century old, and other buildings that are vacant or underused.
Amid all the challenges the VA faces, some have called for eliminating the department and significantly changing the way the country cares for veterans.
Ben Carson, the former Johns Hopkins pediatric neurosurgeon now running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, said last week the VA should be shuttered and its functions transferred to the Department of Defense.
McDonald said that was out of the question.
"There is no substitute for VA," he said, to applause. "Veterans need the VA, American medicine needs the VA and Americans everywhere benefit from the VA."
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, who also spoke at the convention Tuesday, said the nation needs to plan for the newest generation of veterans — an anticipated 1.5 million troops who have served in the military since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Carter said the government has already taken some steps — such as helping service members carry their professional qualifications into the private sector — but there is more that can be done.
"We have a responsibility to defend those who have defended us," Carter said.
In a wide-ranging speech, Carter described a future in which the military shifts from counterinsurgency missions against terrorists in the Middle East and seeks to check other nation states including China, Russia and Iran and maintain international stability.
Carter said the United States will continue to operate in waters claimed by China off its coast, bolster the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to defend Europe against Russia, and help Iraqi authorities defeat the Islamic State terrorist group.
"Today the U.S. military has no equal, we're the best," he said.
To meet the challenges, Carter said, the military will need to develop new technology and recruit high-quality troops. But he said uncertainty over budgets is also hampering his department's ability to plan and he called on Congress to provide the government with a long-term budget and end the sequestration spending caps, which he said are "embarrassing in front of the world."
"Our troops need the best training, the newest equipment, and the right compensation," he said.
"For too long we've been forced to make painful trade-offs, often on short notice, critically undermining our mission."