Veterans Affairs Department Secretary Bob McDonald on Wednesday offered kind words for the White House and the Senate for backing new department programs and policy changes while arguing that House proposals will hurt vets.
Speaking at the Center for Security and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C., Mcdonald said President Barack Obama and senators have shown a willingness to provide funding for VA to transition to a more modern agency, with only a minor differences in proposed spending plans.
The president's budget proposal includes $75.1 billion in discretionary spending for VA in the next year, while the Senate appropriators pared that down to $74.9 billion, according to White House and Senate documents.
"The House markup, however, proposed a $1.5 billion reduction," McDonald said. "So let's be clear -- that reduction will hurt veterans, and it will impede some critical initiatives necessary to transform VA into the high performing organization Veterans deserve."
Also during his hour-long speech, the secretary outlined a plan called "MyVA" to transform and modernize the department. The plan includes five long-term strategies and 12 priority programs, he said.
"We shared these with the House Veterans Affairs Committee," McDonald said. "The Senate committee on Veterans Affairs invited us to a hearing examining them," Unspoken but confirmed by a VA official was the House panel did not hold a hearing on the proposal.
Relations between the VA and the House Veterans Affairs Committee have often been contentious, with the House panel far more consistently and loudly critical of the department over a series of scandals in recent years.
McDonald said improvements or reforms included in the dozen MyVA priorities include improving community care for veterans and changing the employment status of hospital administrators and health care career executives.
Of some 100 program requests in the budget request are more than 40 that require congressional action, including modernizing and clarifying the VA's authority to purchase care services outside the department. This needs to be done as "a strong foundation," he said, for veterans' access to care in the community.
The VA is facing growing calls to expand care-in-the-community services for all generations. Currently only Post-9/11 veterans qualify for such care, though with the aging of the Vietnam-era veteran population, on top of the World War II and Korea-era vets, advocates for such care say expanding it to include the older generations makes sense and is the right thing to do.
Additionally, however, the current program needs to be consolidated. There are actually seven separate care-in-the-community programs, each with their own specifications, eligibility criteria and payment rates. This makes it difficult for the VA to administer them and for veterans to understand them, he said.
"Last October, we submitted our plan to consolidate and simplify the overwhelming number of different programs and improve access to VA care in the community. It's now May," he said.
VA also needs Congress to enact legislation that will enable the department to pay medical center directors salaries that are competitive with their peers in the private sector, which now pull down two or three times the salary of what a VA director earns.
He also wants Congress to act on a proposal to hire senior executives under Title 38, which would remove some of the Civil Service protections they currently enjoy but also offer them some benefits.
"Then we can hire these employees more quickly, with flexible competitive salaries, and they operate under strong accountability processes and policies," he said.