VA CHIEF COUNTERPUNCHES OVER ‘COMMUNITY CARE’ COSTS
The Veterans Choice, Access and Accountability Act of 2014, which Congress rushed to pass last summer to address a patient wait-time scandal at dozens of VA hospitals and clinics, spurred VA to broaden access to care.
Turns out it did so largely through use of existing and often costly contract authorities and partnerships for non-VA health care with local communities rather than the new, more complex Choice Card plan.
The result was seven million new health care appointments for veterans the past year, but also a flood of new enrollees into VA care, an accounting nightmare for health care administrators and a surprising budget shortfall, which VA officials concede they failed to forecast and which angry lawmakers realize they must repair before going on August recess.
If not, VA leaders warn, VA medical facilities will shut their doors.
VA Secretary Bob McDonald came before the Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday to explain why VA needs emergency authority to shift $3 billion from an account fenced for the Choice Card program, and use it instead for other burgeoning community care costs, plus a $500 million tab VA faces to buy new wonder drugs for treatment of late-stage Hepatitis C.
If denied flexibility to access Choice fund, McDonald said, “we will have no option at the end of July but to defer all remaining non-Choice-care-in-the-community authorizations until October, provide staff furlough notices, and notify vendors we cannot pay them as we begin an orderly shutdown of hospitals and clinics across the country.”
McDonald issued his blunt warning knowing he had support of the nation’s largest veteran service organizations for the funding shift. VSO leaders had written in the past week to Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) and other chairmen and ranking members of key congressional committees urging swift transfer of funds to avoid any interruption in veterans’ health services. They largely praised McDonald for expanding access to care without regard to cost.
By Tuesday, Miller and Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on military construction and veterans’ affairs, released a joint statement citing “blatant mismanagement” at VA for the surprise budget shortfall. But they added their assurances “that no veterans will be denied the care they need and deserve.”
Two weeks ago, they angrily added, the VA “couldn’t tell Congress it would be shutting down hospitals next month. No viable organization can function this way. The VA’s continued lack of transparency and refusal to be forthright with Congress and the American people is unacceptable.”
Miller continued to disparage McDonald and his team in opening his hearing, saying “never before can I recall VA -- or any agency -- completely exhausting its operational funds prior to the end of the fiscal year, with the consequences for VA being the cessation of hospital operations.”
Though vowing to protect veterans once more from VA management failures, Miller also warned “the days when VA can come to Congress and just say ‘Cut us a check’ are gone.”
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