For anyone still under the impression that the embattled Veterans Affairs Department will be able to turn itself around quickly, think again.
Instead, acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson told members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Wednesday that it would take years for the department to right its wrongs.
“I believe in as little as two years the conversation can change. That the VA can be the trusted provider for care and benefits,” Gibson said.
Gibson ticked off a list of issues currently facing the VA: a culture of intimidation, an overfocus on metrics, a lack of clinical staff and accountability. To help overcome these challenges, the VA will request an additional $17.6 billion for fiscal years 2014 through 2017 to help fill gaps in medical care and IT and add new VA facilities. It would also include the money to hire an additional 10,000 clinical staff, including 1,500 physicians.
“We haven’t historically managed to requirements, we’ve managed to a budget number,” he said. “… I will not hold back on asking for resources.”¦ [But] I don’t want a penny in there that we couldn’t justify.”
The VA’s budget has grown in recent years from $100 billion in 2009 to $154 billion in 2014. But veterans advocates have long criticized what they view as an entrenched practice within VA leadership of hesitating to ask for additional resources.
And senators seemed to acknowledge that the department requires more than a short-term fix. Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders warned: “While it’s important we put out the current fire, unless we effectively deal with the long-term capacity problems, we’ll be back here year after year.”
But how senators will move forward — and if more money is needed — remains unclear.
“This committee has been, I think, very, very generous to the VA,” said Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb. “… It was almost like we would salute when [former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki] said what he needed, and out the door he would go with more money.”
Johanns said that instead of more money, the VA needs more competition from private care.
Gibson’s appearance before the committee comes as the VA has been embroiled in scandal in recent months from allegations that staffers within the VA’s health care agency cooked the books on how long veterans waited before they received a medical appointment. The VA inspector general is still investigating approximately 70 VA locations. Gibson said the investigations are scheduled to wrap up by mid-August.
That scandal has spread in recent weeks to allegations of retaliation against whistle-blowers and suspicious data in the VA’s disability claims process.
“The culture that has developed at VA and the lack of management accountability is reprehensible. It will not be tolerated,” said Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina.
Members of a conference committee are now trying to reach an agreement on legislation that would expand veterans’ access to non-VA care to make sure more veterans get timely access to care.
Though reforming the VA has bipartisan support, lawmakers are currently squabbling over how much the legislation should cost. Sanders — echoing a broad statement this week from House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller — said he believes the committee can “reach an agreement very soon.”
The Congressional Budget Office released a revised estimate last week on how much the Senate’s VA bill would cost. The organization said the legislation would cost $38 billion a year — down from its preliminary estimate of $50 billion.
Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana said he is “very concerned that this conference committee will end up taking a step backward for veterans’ health care.”¦ We need to make sure we step up to the plate, give them the resources they need, and then hold them accountable.”
What We're Following See More »
A Navy destroyer sailed within 12 miles of an artificial island built by China in the South China Sea, one of several such islands at the center of territorial disputes with other nearby nations. The U.S. called it a "freedom of navigation exercise." Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang "said China had lodged stern representations to the U.S over the patrol and that such moves were not conducive to peace and stability in the South China Sea."
"American spies collected information last summer revealing that senior Russian intelligence and political officials were discussing how to exert influence over Donald J. Trump through his advisers." The conversations centered around Paul Manafort, who was campaign chairman at the time, and Michael Flynn, former national security adviser and then a close campaign surrogate. Both men have been tied heavily with Russia and Flynn is currently at the center of the FBI investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Greg Gianforte, the Montana Republican candidate for the state's lone House seat, was cited for misdemeanor assault Wednesday night after he allegedly body-slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs. Jacobs entered a room in which Gianforte was preparing to give an interview to Fox News, and asked Gianforte about the recently released CBO score on health care legislation, at which point, according to an account from Fox News's Alicia Acuna, Gianforte put both hands around Jacobs's neck and slammed him to the ground. The Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office put out a statement saying there was probable cause for the citation but not the injuries required for it to be considered a felony. Gianforte's aide put out an erroneous statement saying Jacobs grabbed Gianforte by the wrist after aggressively putting a recorder in Gianforte's face.