Lawmakers Scrutinize VA's Plans to Provide Long-Term Care for Aging Baby Boomers

Congresswoman Julia Brownley visits Naval Construction Group (NCG) 1
Congresswoman Julia Brownley visits Naval Construction Group (NCG) 1’s Combat Convoy Simulator, Dec. 20, 2016. (U.S. Navy photo/Lowell Whitman)

In a hearing last week, lawmakers expressed eagerness to learn about the Department of Veterans Affairs' plan to provide in-home and institutional long-term health care to a coming "silver tsunami" of aging Baby Boomers.

However, Teresa Boyd, assistant deputy under secretary for health at the Veterans Health Administration, told House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health members they would have to wait another couple weeks before the VA's "Elderly Strategic Plan" will be ready for release.

"So the timing of this hearing was poor," observed subcommittee chairwoman Julia Brownley, D-California.

That didn't stop lawmakers from quizzing the VHA official on issues found in a recent Government Accountability Office report.

Related: Report: VA Unlawfully Denies Health Care Access for Veterans with 'Bad Paper'

There are currently about 3.2 million veterans aged 65 years or older using VA health care services. The GAO found the VA predicts the amount of long-term care provided to veterans with service-connected disabilities will increase 18% from fiscal 2017 to 2037, and another 5% to provide these services to post-9/11 veterans.

The government watchdog report identified three issues the VA is facing as it prepares for a large, aging cohort: staffing shortages, access to specialized providers and trouble reaching veterans living in rural areas.

Boyd assured Brownley the VA's plan will address the concerns listed by the GAO.

"We sincerely believe we have an opening to turn this silver tsunami into a golden opportunity," she said.

But despite the VA's ongoing improvements to scholarship and student loan payback programs to attract more staff, Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pennsylvania, was not as optimistic.

Lamb is concerned the current administration's actions against VA unions -- ending a type of pay union representatives receive while pursuing grievances on behalf of bargaining units and requiring union staff to pay for office space -- will push away the personnel the VA is trying to attract.

"The type people who are going to take a home health aid or assistance job are often the people who need that sort of protection and support the most," he said. "And I think for us to recruit the best of the best in that category for the next generation, you want the people who are already there telling their friends, 'Hey, VA's a great place to work. They stick up for us; they pay us well; they take care of our needs if we get sick … '"

Lamb urged the VA to take this into account as it tackles the obstacles the GAO report found.

Meanwhile, Brownley and other lawmakers advocated for more investments in the VA's in-home, long-term care programs.

"In recent years, stakeholders have largely focused on VA's community care and caregiver programs. While these are essential areas for VA to get right, the scale of the silver tsunami is something VA cannot afford to get wrong," Brownley said. "Millions of veterans and their families are relying on us to ensure their later years are as dignified and healthy as possible."

Boyd agreed that many seniors prefer to stay in their homes as long as possible instead of living in a facility for their long-term care. She said the results of one of the VA's in-home programs, Choose Home, have played a role in developing the strategic plan to be released later this month.

-- Dorothy Mills-Gregg can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @DMillsGregg.

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