WASHINGTON — Lawmakers from both parties accused the Department of Veterans Affairs Wednesday of hiding details of a budget crisis that could force the shutdown of some VA hospitals next month.
The VA said last week it may shutter hospitals unless Congress closes a $2.5 billion shortfall caused by a sharp increase in demand by veterans for health care, including costly treatments for the deadly hepatitis C virus.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs committee, said he was shocked at the magnitude of the VA's problems and outraged that Congress was not notified until nearly 10 months into the budget year. The possible closure of hospitals was not mentioned as recently as last month, when the VA first told Congress about the potential budget shortfall, Miller said.
The only indication of the pending crisis was a "cryptic warning" from a VA staffer June 4 about likely overspending, Miller said.
"This is not a 'flying-under-the-radar' issue, yet I feel that is exactly how VA and the president have treated it in an effort to avoid responsibility," Miller told VA Secretary Robert McDonald at a hearing Wednesday. "Someone took their eye off the ball here."
Miller called for President Barack Obama to step in personally to ensure the VA's problems are addressed.
The budget crisis is one of several major problems facing the VA as it tries to respond to a scandal over long waits for veterans seeking medical care and falsified records by VA employees to cover up the delays.
Congress approved a sweeping overhaul of the department last year, but the VA continues to be plagued by missteps, including an internal report indicating that nearly one-third of veterans with pending applications for VA health care likely have already died. VA officials said they were unable to determine how many veterans died, whether they truly were seeking VA health care or had merely indicated interest in signing up.
McDonald denied that anyone at VA had hidden or downplayed its budget problems. He said the VA is facing a crisis because of a sharp increase in demand for health care, brought on in part by the overhaul that Congress approved. The law increased veterans' access to health care, both within the VA and with local doctors who treat veterans at government expense.
The VA has completed seven million more appointments this year than last, including 4.5 million additional appointments with private doctors, McDonald said.
McDonald, who took over the VA last July, said the VA in some ways is a victim of its own success.
"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 at 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 a 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 disputed that, saying 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 agency also is considering furloughs, hiring freezes and other steps to close the funding gap for the budget year that ends Sept. 30, McDonald said.
The Choice program, the centerpiece of the VA overhaul approved last year, makes it easier for veterans to receive federally paid medical care from local 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 said the agency needs flexibility to pay for health care, no matter how it is provided.
"My biggest nightmare is veterans going without care because I have money in the wrong pocket," McDonald said.
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