The Department of Veterans Affairs
is asking Congress for $10 billion in new funding to hire 10,000 additional clinical staff over the next two years, and to pay for veterans' care delivered by private providers. It also wants an additional $7.6 billion to construct eight new VA facilities around the country, and to lease 77 additional facilities, among other infrastructure improvements.
Only 1,500 of the new hires would be doctors; the rest would be supporting staff such as nurses and physician assistants, said acting VA secretary Sloan Gibson, testifying Wednesday at a Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs hearing.
“I believe that the greatest risk to veterans over the intermediate to long-term is that additional resources are provided only to support increased purchase care in the community, and not to materially remedy the historic shortfall in internal VA capacity,” Sloan said. “Such an outcome would leave the VA even more poorly positioned to meet future demand.”
Lawmakers said they found themselves conflicted on the funding request. They want to help veterans get the care they need, but they find themselves struggling to trust data and individuals at the agency, committee members said.
For example, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) pointed to a July 15 press release in which the agency recapped numbers it released Monday at a House Committee on Veterans' Affairs hearing that claimed it had reduced its veterans' care claims backlog by more than 55% from its peak of 611,000 claims in March 2013.
The VA released those numbers even though a representative from the Office of Inspector General said during the Monday hearing that the OIG doubted the accuracy of the figure.
“You've got to gain the trust of this committee and the country,” Burr said. “How smart is it to release a press release with numbers refuted by those investigating the VA?”
Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) also expressed doubt. “This committee has been very, very generous to the VA,” he said. When former VA secretary Eric Shinseki
requested additional money, “it was almost like we'd salute and he'd walk out the door with more money, and always with the promise we're doing better,” he said.
When asked what would happen if the agency didn't get the additional funds, Sloan responded, “The wait times just get longer.”Follow Virgil Dickson on Twitter: @MHvdickson