Lawmaker Doubts VA's $17 Billion Budget Request

Congressman Jeff Miller at VSO Roundtable.

A key House lawmaker says he is too distrustful of Department of Veterans Affairs' figures to quickly agree to increase its budget by almost $18 billion to meet veterans' healthcare needs and put a serious dent in patient wait times.

Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the $17.6 billion number proposed by Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson on Wednesday "seems to have magically fallen out of the sky ... after years of assertions from VA leaders at all levels that they had nearly every dollar and every person necessary to accomplish VA's mission."

"It would be an act of budgetary malpractice to blindly sign off on this request," Miller said.

Gibson, who testified Wednesday before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committees, said the money would be used over the next three years to hire 100,000new doctors and nurses and expand capacity at community clinics and other facilities now unable to fully meet veterans' needs.

In opening remarks Gibson listed the VA's now well-known problems, which include long wait times for care, systemic falsification of data to conceal those delays, failure to hold people responsible for abuses, employees' fear of retaliation for bringing up problems, and a staff and management more focused on metrics than patients.

He also said the VA lacks the clinical staff, space and technology to adequately meet current needs, and even the capacity "to accurately quantify our staffing requirements.

"Historically we've not built our resource requirements from the bottom up, but instead managed [resources] to a budget number," he said.

Gibson, who has been working to improve VA operations since taking on the top job with the resignation in May of Secretary Eric Shinseki, said the net result of all the has happened has cost the VA the trust of veterans, the public and Congress.

That was apparent in Miller's mistrust of Gibson's assertion that $17.6 billion could resolve the current problems of wait times.

"I am committed to giving VA the resources it needs to provide our veterans with the care and benefits they have earned," Miller said, "But if there's one thing we've learned over the last few months, it's that we can't trust VA's numbers."

House and Senate members are currently trying to come up with a compromise to veterans' bills already passed by the two chambers. Both are aimed at making it easier for veterans to get medical care, including by going outside the VA system when necessary.

But the Senate legislation also includes $500 million for hiring of doctors and nurses, as well as funding to lease 26 new medical facilities, expanded treatment programs for veterans dealing with sexual assault, and a commission to review the department's IT and construction programs.

The Senate bill was drafted by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs committee, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Some of the provision had previously been included in a major veterans' bill that Sanders was unable to get through last year.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@monster.com

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