Members of Congress told Veterans Affairs Department Secretary Robert McDonald on Wednesday that closing VA hospitals would be unacceptable despite the agency's $2.5 billion shortfall.
Lawmakers on the House Veterans Affairs Committee fired questions at McDonald during a hearing discussing his request to transfer money between community-care programs to close a gap.
VA officials have said the shortfall is caused by a sharp increase in demand for healthcare, including costly treatments for hepatitis C.
Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) was among several lawmakers who expressed anger that the VA did not bring to light the shortfall until last month, near the end of the fiscal year. "I'm disappointed by the slow, painstaking revelation of this crisis by the department," he said. "This is unprecedented—a true VA 'budget-gate' for our time.”
The agency said it could be forced to shut down hospitals and impose furloughs or hiring freezes because of the shortfall.
Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Calif.) said closures were not acceptable. "Closing hospitals is not a choice as far as I'm concerned," she said.
Miller called for President Barack Obama to personally step in.
Obama addressed the lingering problems Tuesday at the VA. While significant progress has been made at the troubled agency, he said, “we've got to acknowledge our work is not done.” He added that there still is a “big challenge” to keep up with the surge in veterans seeking care. "We're not going to let up.”
McDonald said the VA has scheduled 7 million more healthcare appointments this year. McDonald, who took over at the VA last July, said his agency in some ways is a victim of its own success.
Last year, Congress passed VA reforms in response to a scandal over long wait times for veterans seeking appointments, as well as falsified records by VA employees to cover up the delays. The scandal cost then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki his job and led to the resignation of several top officials, including the head of the Veterans Health Administration, the VA's healthcare arm.
"Last year, you talked about mismanagement because we didn't give vets enough care. Now mismanagement is giving veterans too much care," McDonald told Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) in one of several heated exchanges during Wednesday's hearing.
But Lamborn and other lawmakers said the VA's plea for more money had a familiar feel. "I feel like it's Groundhog Day," said Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y), referring to the classic movie in which the main character repeats the same day over and over. "It's another request by the VA for yet more money."
McDonald said a static budget is not covering the changing needs and requirements of the agency. "Without much flexibility, we can't provide what they need the way you directed it,” he said.
McDonald said the department wants to transfer up to $3 billion from the new Veterans Choice program to close the budget gap, with as much as $500 million going to treat hepatitis C. A single pill for the liver-wasting viral infection can cost up to $1,000.
The Choice program, the centerpiece of the VA overhaul approved last year, makes it easier for veterans to receive federally paid medical care from non-VA doctors. Congress approved $10 billion over three years for the Choice program, one of several programs used by the VA to provide medical care.
The law restricts the money to patients who participate in the program. But McDonald and other VA officials say the agency needs flexibility to pay for healthcare, no matter how it is provided. "My biggest nightmare is veterans going without care because I have money in the wrong pocket," McDonald said
The Associated Press contributed to this report.