Acting VA chief seeks $17.6 billion

After vigorously defending the progress made in cutting medical-service wait times for veterans since he took over the Department of Veterans Affairs, acting secretary Sloan D. Gibson said the troubled agency needs $17.6 billion in additional funds and 10,000 additional staffers to truly address its systemic problems.

Without increasing the number of doctors, staffers and beds in VA facilities, Gibson warned the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, “the wait times just get longer.”

Gibson took over the agency after Eric K. Shinseki resigned as secretary in the wake of a scandal over the ma­nipu­la­tion of records to hide long wait times., who resigned in the wake of a scandal over the ma­nipu­la­tion of records to hide long wait times.

Thousands of veterans had waited months to receive basic care at clinics around the country. In some cases, officials at various clinics had engaged in the record ma­nipu­la­tion, partly to appear to meet performance goals, which in turn impacted pay raises.

Gibson said that 87 medical facilities are being investigated.

“As a consequence of all these failures, the trust that is the foundation of all we do, the trust of the veterans we serve and the trust of the American people and their elected representatives, has eroded,” Gibson told the committee.

From the $17.6 billion requested, more than $10 billion would go to providing private care for veterans while the agency continues its investigations and institutes new safeguards. As the capacity of VA hospitals increases, Gibson said, less money would go for private care. And $6 billion would go toward opening new VA clinics.

The remainder of the money would be used to hire an additional 10,000 clinical-care staff members and other 1,5000 doctors to work in existing VA facilities. The single biggest problem facing VA facilities is a lack of capacity, Gibson said.

The acting secretary faced tough questioning from Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), who asked whether the additional funding would truly address the wait-time issue, and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who questioned whether Gibson had tackled the problems aggressively enough.

“I don’t think you need more billions and billions of dollars,” Johanns said.

The agency’s credibility has continued to take a beating, as similar problems emerge in various parts of VA.

Witnesses at a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing on Monday evening said problems of record ma­nipu­la­tion also were found in the Veterans Benefits Administration. Echoing the problems in VA medical centers, VBA created unrealistic goals, manipulated data to meet its targets and fostered a corrosive culture in which accountability is scarce and managers punish workers who report wrongdoing, officials said.

VA Assistant Inspector General Linda Halliday said her office substantiated claims of data manipulation at a Philadelphia benefits office, saying processors changed dates for old benefits claims, making them appear new. She added that similar complaints are coming in from other regional offices., including Baltimore, Little Rock, Los Angeles and Oakland, Calif.

“We are concerned at how quickly the number of [regional offices] with allegations is occurring,” she said.

VA said in a statement Monday that the problem resulted from “confusion and misapplication” of a 2014 leadership memo that authorized processors to mark overlooked claims with the dates they were found, a so-called “discovered date,” instead of the dates they were submitted.

Allison Hickey, VA undersecretary for benefits, said at the hearing that the guidance, which was recently suspended nationwide, represented a “pro-veteran position,” explaining that it allowed processors to approve old claims without sending applicants back for more examinations by doctors.

The guidelines said each use of a “discovered date” required an explanation, as well as approval from a top administrator and notification to a higher office. A review of 30 such cases last month by the inspector general’s office found that none were in full compliance with the guidelines.

Monday’s hearing came hours after VA released its latest processing numbers, showing that the agency had reduced its inventory of long-standing claims by 56 percent since the inventory reached a high of 611,000 cases in March 2013.

Asked whether she trusts the new figures, Halliday said: “At this point, I would say no, I can’t trust those numbers.”

VA said it has taken steps to address problems with the “discovered date” method, saying it is looking for misuse at other regional offices, referring issues to the inspector general’s office and correcting claims that were affected by “misinterpretation” of the May 2013 guidance.

Gibson has promised accountability for any employees who intentionally misused the policy.

Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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