Veterans Affairs Department Secretary Bob McDonald told lawmakers on Thursday he has no plans to grow the agency's payroll or bureaucracy, or to completely privatize VA health care.
McDonald also countered the perception that VA officials and personnel deliberately would thwart programs such as the Veterans Choice program – which permits veterans to get care from non-VA providers.
"We are for the Choice program and we are for outside care," McDonald told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. "We already have a culture of [utilizing] outside care. And while I can't say that every employee would tell you that outside care is a good thing, I can tell you that the leadership believes it's the only way to go. We've got to have a combination of VA care and non-VA care to properly care for our veterans."
But McDonald, responding to lawmaker and veterans' groups concerns that VA may promote the Choice Act as a substitute for VA healthcare, said leaders view it only as a supplement to the system.
McDonald testified before the panel to make the case for the VA's 2016 budget. The agency is asking for $169 billion, including $73.5 billion in discretionary funding, largely for health care. The largest portion of the proposed budget, $95 billion, is for mandatory benefit programs such as disability compensation and pensions.
However, lawmakers have focused mostly on the $15 billion budgeted for the Choice Act. The program was funded as part of major veterans legislation passed last summer, spurred by long patient wait times and patient appointment manipulation at VA hospitals across the country.
Appointment delays because of manipulation have been linked to the deaths of more than 30 veterans seeking care at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix.
Shortly after the proposed VA budget was released in early February, McDonald indicated he wanted authority to move some of Choice funding around to meet needs elsewhere in the department.
Lawmakers have been concerned that the move could kill the program before it has a chance to get off the ground. They said they were concerned the money would be wasted on inefficient programs or lost as the VA reorganizes its nine-network agency under the MyVA program, which is a plan to streamline and improve services across the department.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, chairman of the Senate panel, also expressed concern that McDonald's plans would merely result in a still larger VA.
"I've seen lots of reorganizations and more than not it means more government, more employees, and more inefficiencies and it doesn't work," Isakson said.
"I don't expect it will be an increase in head count for the department over time," McDonald said. "I expect it will be a productively improvement ... We plan to take those resources that we are able to gain through shared services and apply them for better customer service."
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org