Senior lawmakers traveled from Capitol Hill on Thursday to the Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters to hear firsthand why the agency is threatening to shut down some hospitals next month if Congress does not address a $2.5 billion shortfall.
The visit by the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate committees that oversee veterans care was the agency’s latest effort to step up pressure on Congress to fill a $3 billion hole in its budget before the August recess. The lawmakers attended a daily meeting of agency staff that is trying to manage an explosion in demand for health care.
VA officials and congressional aides say privately they’re confident they’ll reach a resolution by the end of July that will avoid cutting services to veterans. But a short-term plan does not look like it will quell tensions between Capitol Hill and VA leaders over money and management of veterans care.
On Monday, VA officials sent their latest plan to Congress to shift $3 billion from the underused Choice Card program to cover shortfalls in the department’s Care in the Community program, which provides veterans with outside medical care. A year after a scandal over long wait times at VA clinics, veterans demand for health care is growing again, with wait times up 50 percent over last year, the agency says.
The demand for care has pulled $2.5 billion from other VA accounts, including money the agency must pay for clinical salaries, medical equipment other operations, officials say.
“If these program funds are not restored, VA will face shutting down hospital operations during August 2015,” Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson warned in a letter to lawmakers. Furloughs and hiring freezes also are on the table, he has said.
The agency first requested a fix for the budget gap three weeks ago, but has not seen progress on Capitol Hill.
Skeptical lawmakers in both parties have faulted VA for failing to announce the impending shortfall before June, and criticized senior leaders for failing to anticipate or fix budget problems.
On Tuesday, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) wrote a letter to President Obama asking him to get “personally involved” in what the lawmaker called “a series of belated warnings about VA’s fiscal condition…” Miller wrote that he does not want veterans to “pay the price for VA mismanagement.”
“If this is truly a crisis threatening VA hospital operations then the President should be sounding the alarm,” Miller wrote.
After explosive allegations last summer that veterans died while waiting for care, Congress authorized $15 billion to hire more medical staff and launch a program called the Choice Card, which allows veterans to go to outside doctors.
But the program has been slow to take off, and VA now wants the flexibility to tap some of that money to cover its budget shortfall. Lawmakers, though, have resisted other VA requests to use Choice Card funding, even though the agency says most of it has gone unspent.