The funding request last week is in addition to legislation being negotiated between the House and Senate that would fund non-VA healthcare for veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility, or who face long waits at their local VA facility, which the Congressional Budget Office said would cost about $33 billion annually. The cost issue has delayed action.
Gibson said the additional money is needed to enable the VA itself to meet the current demand for care. “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 of care in the community, and not to materially remedy the historic shortfall in internal VA capacity,” Sloan said.
Republican senators said they want to help veterans get the care they need but don't necessarily trust the VA's data. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) pointed to the VA's recent claim that it had reduced its veterans' care claims backlog by more than 55% from its peak of 611,000 claims in March 2013. The agency released those numbers even though a representative from the VA's Office of Inspector General said during the Senate committee 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.
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 that “the wait times just get longer.” But experts say it will be a difficult challenge for the VA to hire so many doctors, nurses and other clinical staff, given the shortage of primary-care providers.
Follow Virgil Dickson on Twitter: @MHVDickson