Does the VA budget 'jive?'

Matt Saintsing
March 26, 2019 - 4:31 pm
The VA budget slashes construction funding while the department is investing in private care.

hoto by Oliver Contreras/SIPA USA)

The Department of Veterans Affairs is in its “most transformative period” since World War II, according to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, but some lawmakers are worried that expanding access to private care while slashing construction funding is setting the department up for failure. 

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), the ranking member on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said at a hearing Tuesday he doesn’t want to see additional investments in private care access at the expense of brick and mortar VA facilities. 

“We’ve got to be careful that we don’t take the department down a dangerous path,” said Tester. “When it comes to veterans, you can outsource the care, but you can’t outsource responsibility.”

Wilkie rebutted that concerns about privatization “is just not borne out by our budget” which calls for a total of $220 billion for VA, a 9.5 percent increase over last year’s funding.

He added VA’s 170-hospital health care network “no longer on the cusp of transformation; we are in the middle of it.”

And the “main driver” of change is the VA MISSION Act, which collapses VA’s multiple community care programs into one. 

Where it stands now, veterans can opt to see a private doctor if they would have to wait 30 days for an appointment or travel 40 miles.

VA announced new access standards in January that would relax those rules to a 20-day wait period or half-hour drive to see a primary care physician, and an hour for specialty care. 

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) agreed that increased investment in community care could leave the VA’s infrastructure behind, and added a VA mobile unit in Clarksburg, West Virginia is already “totally inoperable.”  

Photo by Xinhua/Sipa USA

He also expressed concerns that veterans may not want to go to facilities with old conditions, citing the need for routine maintenance, such as roofing and HVAC upkeep. 

“Even though the intent might not be there (to privatize), it looks like the signs are moving in that direction because of demand from our veterans,” said Manchin. 

However, Wilkie said “veterans are voting with their feet” citing the growing satisfaction among veterans for the care they receive at VA facilities, according to surveys the department sends out. 

Still, he estimated the agency needs $60 billion over the next five years for “capital investment” to keep up with the needs. 

RELATED: Veterans on Trump’s budget request: ‘A very good start’

Tester said cuts to construction bring into the administration’s plan to make the VA competitive with private sector care. 

“If you guys have $60 billion in construction infrastructure needs over the next five years, but you’re reducing those same accounts by 40 and 50 percent, something doesn’t jive," said Tester. 

RELATED: Here’s what the VA Mission Act means for veterans

The “fix” to that problem, according to Wilkie, is an asset review the VA MISSION Act authorizes to determine which buildings require more investment or are fully operational. He added he’ll likely look to “accelerate” that review. 

RELATED: Veterans are about to get better access to private health care

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