The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee says Congress will continue to scrutinize Department of Veterans Affairs spending in areas "that have no bearing on direct services to veterans."
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., identified several areas of "wasteful spending" by the VA during an online discussion hosted by Military.com that also included Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "Growth in central staff, bonus allocations (especially to highly paid SES) employees, conference expenditures, large employee travel costs, large [regional] headquarters staffing … these are just a few of the areas we are looking at," Miller said in response to one audience member's question.
The House already has passed legislation to rein in bonuses for its Senior Executive Staff. It has also been investigating how VA spends its training money since revelations that two programs at a Florida resort in 2011 that cost millions of dollars and saw VA employees accepting gifts.
But Miller's comments on Friday suggest the congressman also has issues with the size of the 23 Veterans Integrated Service Networks around the country. These networks are set up to provide VA healthcare to veterans over designated regions. The service networks include hospitals, doctors and other medical professionals, but also support staff, including in areas of acquisitions.
Among his top concerns for veterans now, he said, is the growing disability claims backlog and the VA's mental health care crisis.
The VA has regularly been hammered by Congress over its backlog for disability claims and long wait-times for veterans seeking counseling to actually get an appointment.
VA officials have countered that the backlog and delays are owed to the agency acting on its mission to care for veterans – which has included more veterans from prior wars as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since being named to head the agency in 2009, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has opened the disability claims system to tens of thousands of more veterans from Vietnam by increasing the number of illnesses linked to Agent Orange exposure. He has also expanded the number of vets eligible for mental health counseling and post-traumatic stress disorder by recognizing that exposure to trauma is not limited to those who experience only combat.
The VA is currently in the process of adding an additional 1,600 new mental health counselors to its rolls to bring down the wait times.
It was the long wait times veterans were experiencing that got Miller and his fellow congressmen to also focus on VA bonuses. Earlier this year, a former VA official from New Hampshire testified that the appointments system was being "gamed" by some to make it look like veterans were getting mental health appointments within an allotted time.
The gaming was being done because executive bonuses were tied to hitting the numbers, according to the testimony.
Earlier this month the House passed legislation that would cap senior executive bonuses at $1 million per year, down from $4 million the senior executives had dividing up in prior years.
That Miller is still looking at bonuses, however, indicates Congress may not be done trimming back on financial incentives for VA leaders.
Funding for direct services to veterans is being safeguarded, according to Miller. He said the budget passed by the House increases funding for the next decade, taking into consideration the numbers of vets expected to enter the VA system as well as the rate of inflation.
He also made the point that VA has been protected from sequestration cuts, those mandated by law to take effect on Jan. 2 unless Congress passes a 2013 budget.
Many in Congress have been demanding that President Obama also issue an order exempting the Defense Department from sequestration cuts, should that come to pass. The White House, though equally vocal in opposing sequestration as any Republican House or Senate member, has so far not budged on protecting Defense.
Between cuts already planned for the Pentagon and those that could be imposed by sequestration, the Defense Department's budget over the next 10 years would be reduced by $1 trillion.
McKeon and others have criticized cuts to defense because it would harm readiness and adversely impact the U.S. economy. Even the possibility of sequestration cuts is having an effect, McKeon said.
"Reductions in contracts have already begun to take place due to the specter of impending sequestration. Just the other day Boeing announced the layoff of almost 600 employees," he said Friday.
McKeon also said he has been unable to get a breakdown from the Pentagon just how sequestration cuts would be applied.
"The reductions we received just show a 9.4 percent reduction for all operations and maintenance … funds," McKeon said.