WASHINGTON — The secretary of Veterans Affairs told lawmakers on Wednesday that unless Congress takes emergency action to correct a $2.5 billion shortfall, the VA at the end of the month will begin shutting down medical centers “all across the country.”
VA leader Robert McDonald said the department “will have no option” but to halt outside health care treatments until the new fiscal year begins in October.
Beyond that, the department will “provide staff furlough notices and notify vendors that we cannot pay them as we begin an orderly shutdown of hospitals and clinics all across the country,” he said.
Congressional leaders pledged no veterans will be cut off from care. Nevada lawmakers emphasized the VA Medical Center in North Las Vegas will not be closing.
Nonetheless, a potential cutoff in veterans health care ’ first floated by the VA last week — has served to focus lawmakers’ attention even more tightly on the department’s latest fiscal crisis.
Some expressed irritation the VA was dumping a problem onto Congress seemingly at the last minute, and frightening veterans at the same time.
“I don’t like the fact they are putting us in a tough spot right now,” said Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., who sits on the Senate’s committee on veterans.
“For them to hold us over a barrel and say we are going to start closing hospitals and scaring veterans — I can assure you that is not going to happen — but for the VA to be sending that message out there is thoughtless at a minimum and heartless at most,” Heller said.
“We are diligently working to ensure (shutdowns) do not occur and that no veterans will be denied the care they need and deserve,” Reps. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Charlie Dent, R-Pa., said in a statement as chairmen of House committees that oversee the VA.
“There’s a lot of teeth-gnashing and hair-pulling but the fact of the matter is we can’t let the hospitals close,” Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., told McDonald at a hearing Wednesday in the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
At the hearing, Miller said it was “unprecedented” for the VA to bust a budget. He questioned why the agency was slow to identify a looming shortfall in health programs and then was slow in informing Congress about it.
“I am disappointed about the slow, painstaking revelation of this crisis by the department that is led by you,” Miller told McDonald. “Somebody somewhere took their eye off the ball.”
Titus said there are no signs the VA Medical Center in North Las Vegas is preparing to wind down.
But Titus said persistent VA funding woes might hamper ongoing projects to expand the emergency department and finish the hospital administration building and community living center.
“What is more of a concern to me is moving forward, are we going to be able to expand? Are we going to be able to do projects?” she said. “I don’t think they will be closing anything but will we be able to keep up?”
As it carried out reforms from a health care scandal in summer 2014, the VA has seen a sharp upswing in the number of veterans obtaining services. At the same time, expensive new medicine to treat hepatitis C has strained budgets. And the VA says it is constrained by an outdated computer system that makes it difficult to keep track of its finances.
McDonald said the VA initially believed it could solve the financial problem in-house but discovered that would not be possible.
Senate Veterans Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said a bill that will likely pass next week would allow the VA to combine accounting for a number of its health programs, giving McDonald flexibility he has requested to shift funds around to address shortfalls .
Isakson said the solution would “provide the funds the VA needs to meet the shortfall and solve that problem not just for the temporary time being but for a long time to come.”
In his appearance, McDonald warned that VA money needs will only grow in the coming years as service members who served in Afghanistan and Iraq enter the health care system.
“We can’t be shortsighted,” he said.
Senate panel OKs Heller reform bill
The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee approved by voice vote the measure by Sens. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Bob Casey, D-Pa., that would require the Government Accountability Office to assess the management of 56 VA regional offices to determine if claims are being handled consistently.
Among other things, the bill also calls for the VA to establish training programs for service managers and for the agency’s inspector general to assess how VA outposts set timelines and deadlines for handling claims.
It comes as the VA claims improvements in reducing backlogs of benefit applications, including at the regional office in Reno that has ranked among the slowest.
“I’ll be the first to admit there is no silver bullet in solving all the VA claims problems and backlog issues but I think this bill puts it closer to permanently addressing this backlog and holding the VA accountable,” Heller said during the committee session.
Before voicing its approval the committee attached a bill by Heller and Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, calling on the Department of Defense to develop a plan to award benefits to Filipino veterans who fought alongside U.S. soldiers in the Pacific during World War II.
Also added were provisions allowing the spouse of a deceased or service-disabled veteran who owned a small business to retain preferences to qualify for government contracts.