Latest problems at VA demand attention

South Bend Tribune

The headlines about the Department of Veterans Affairs — arriving in a week filled with major news stories, some of them historic — landed quietly.

“Wait lists grow as many more veterans seek care and funding falls short,” reported the New York Times.

“VA says it faces $2.5B shortfall; says demand for health care spikes after wait-time scandal,” according to U.S. News & World Report.

One year after the VA was rocked by a controversy involving long waiting lists for health care, there’s a new problem for the agency. The number of veterans on waiting lists of one month or more is now 50 percent higher than it was last year.

And on Thursday, at a House committee meeting, VA officials announced a nearly $3 billion budget shortfall that they attributed to increased demand for non-VA care and rising costs of hepatitis C treatments.

The VA, which is considering furloughs and hiring freezes to address the shortfall, is asking Congress for approval to be flexible with existing funds. Specifically, they’re looking to use funds from the Choice Card Program. The card was part of a plan implemented last year to reduce wait times and hire more doctors and nurses. It gives veterans who have been waiting more than 30 days for appointments or who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility the chance to see a private doctor.

Republican lawmakers have objected to using Choice Card funds to make up for the shortfall.

In a statement, U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Jimtown, said the VA “now wants to use funds from the Choice program as their own personal slush fund to cover the costs without giving Congress any kind of comprehensive proposal on how they plan to move forward.”

A statement from U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly reads, “The VA must provide the highest quality, most accessible health care that our veterans have earned. There is a lot of work yet to be done for the VA to right the wrongs uncovered last year. With more veterans seeking care and benefits than ever before, Congress needs to hold accountable the VA for the care it provides our veterans.”

Lawmakers are justified in criticizing VA officials for failing to anticipate this budget problem and for waiting so far into the budget year to announce such a large gap. But outrage won’t resolve this issue.

Walorski, a member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said she is “currently working with my colleagues to figure out how to cover the shortfall while looking at additional ways to hold accountable the actions of bureaucrats that betray the public’s trust.”

Donnelly, who introduced legislation this year to strengthen VA mental health care said he will “continue working until everyone who served receives the care they deserve and receives it on time.”

Ultimately, it’s up to Congress to ensure that the VA is doing its job and that veterans’ needs are being fulfilled. We expect that lawmakers will follow through on honoring the promise made to those who have served their country. And that our area representatives, who have demonstrated a sincere commitment to veterans, will be a part of the solution.

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