Acting VA Secretary: It Will Take Years Before Department Changes

Sloan Gibson says the agency can turn the corner in two years, but it will need a lot more money.

PHOENIX, AZ - MAY 08: Exterior view of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center on May 8, 2014 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Department of Veteran Affairs has come under fire after reports of the deaths of 40 patients forced to wait for medical care at the Phoenix VA hopsital.
National Journal
Jordain Carney
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Jordain Carney
July 16, 2014, 8:41 a.m.

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.”

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