Lawmakers set to question VA on latest funding crisis
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 23, 2015
Note: This article has been corrected.
WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs is likely to face tough criticism Thursday when it breaks the news to Congress of its massive new financial crisis – $2.7 billion short on health care funding.
The shortfall is drawing fire from some key lawmakers, who said they are surprised and frustrated by continued VA failures. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Congress has pumped billions in new funding into the department in just the past year and increased its budget every year for 14 years.
The VA’s second in charge, Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson, is set to testify Thursday before the House Veterans Affairs Committee on the current budget situation, after telling the New York Times last week about the shortfall and blaming it on surging demand for health care at its nationwide network of hospitals and clinics.
“We have been pushing to accelerate access to care for veterans, but where we now find ourselves is that if we don’t do something different we’re going to be $2.7 billion short,” Gibson told the newspaper.
The VA saw its overall workload increase by more than 10 percent over the past year as well as increased costs due to a new, expensive Hepatitis C drug, according to a memo sent to members of Congress and obtained by Stars and Stripes.
The financial problem came as a surprise in the House, said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
“Secretary [Bob] McDonald has testified 4 times within nearly as many months about VA’s budget, without ever mentioning a shortfall of this magnitude,” Miller said in a statement Tuesday.
It is the latest in a string of crises and big emergency spending at the department – especially over the past year as the VA attempted to emerge from one of the worst scandals in its history. One year ago, audits found health care staff across the country had manipulated patient appointment data to hide long delays in treatment for tens of thousands of beneficiaries.
When the extent of the scandal became apparent last summer, Congress passed a massive $16.3 billion emergency overhaul law that included $10 billion for the Veterans Choice program, which provides outside care to veterans who cannot get an appointment at their local VA.
But the department is struggling now to pay for a $1.73 billion Denver hospital construction project with huge cost overruns due to mismanagement. Department officials had proposed diverting money from the Veterans Choice program and elsewhere to pay for the troubled project.
“Less than 3 weeks ago, VA came to Congress asking to remove $534 million from medical care to pay for the largest construction failure in VA history,” Miller said.
McCain said the new crisis shows the department cannot manage federal money and provide treatment to veterans.
This year, lawmakers granted the VA an additional $6 billion to hire more health care staff, he said.
“Congress has approved every budget increase for the VA since 9/11 – in many cases going above and beyond increases requested by the VA – and yet the Department continues to tell us how it is short of funding,” McCain said in a statement.