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Congress: Be skeptical of more money for VA

The warped thinking at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is perfectly illustrated in two recent stories about its spending habits.

Late last month the VA claimed the department faces a nearly $3 billion shortfall for this fiscal year, potentially forcing them to furlough employees, freeze hiring and deny care to veterans.

{mosads}Yet just a few weeks earlier, a department whistleblower detailed how financial mismanagement at the VA squanders at least $6 billion per year, violating government contracting rules and undermining the department’s purported mission of service to veterans.

The contrast between these reports illustrates perfectly the vast gulf between the priorities of the VA bureaucracy and those of the rest of the country. While many businesses and families try to “do more with less” since the Great Recession, the VA has perfected the art of “doing less with more.”

But the only solution the VA advocates to address its well-documented problems is more money.

Don’t take the bait—it’s past time to hold the VA responsible for its failures, and that starts with no longer enabling the VA’s reckless spending.

It’s important to recognize how rapidly VA funding has increased in recent years. Since 2009 alone, the VA budget has grown by over 65 percent, from $98 billion to $165 billion. Meanwhile, in the last year, Congress allocated an additional $21 billion to the department in the wake of the VA wait list scandal.

To be clear, part of the VA’s budget growth under the last two administrations can justified—but much of it can’t. The overall veteran population is aging and new veterans are entering the system. Funding and personnel followed in an effort to meet the needs of those veterans, but the spending and personnel increases far outpaced the increase in demand.

The more taxpayer resources are poured into the VA, the worse the department performs. Wait times for care have grown longer. A new VA medical center in Colorado is years behind schedule and one billion dollars over budget. Distressingly common horror stories abound of hygienic problems and sanitation issues at VA facilities.

Along with additional funding, Congress last year gave the VA leadership tools to address the department’s management failures, in the form of new accountability and patient choice programs.  A year later, the department leadership has failed to put these reforms to work. In fact, the VA bureaucracy actually appears to be actively sabotaging the reforms.

The accountability measures, which enabled the VA secretary to fire poorly performing executives, have thus far led to almost no terminations for managers involved in the wait list scandal that was uncovered last year. 

Meanwhile, the Veteran Choice Card, designed to allow veterans to seek care from private providers outside the VA system, has faced open hostility from the VA bureaucracy.

The goal of the Choice Cards was to give veterans more options for timely access to care, thus relieving pressure on the VA system. But VA bureaucrats, perhaps sensing a threat to their monopoly on veterans’ health care, have set out to strangle the program in its infancy. They’ve made it so difficult to use that veterans often express confusion and frustration. 

They’ve also set to deprive the Choice Card Program of its funding. To offset the supposed $3 billion budget shortfall, VA leadership claim they need to shift money out of the choice program to fund other priorities, according to a New York Times report.

Otherwise, the VA warns, they’ll have to resort to further rationing of care to veterans. It’s the latest cynical step aimed at stopping competition, propping up a dysfunctional bureaucracy and holding veterans captive in the VA’s failing system.

Congress should not give in to these scare tactics. Instead, they should hold the line and forbid the VA from undermining the very programs created to help veterans receive the care they deserve. Congress should instead force the VA to cover this supposed budget shortfall by eliminating wasteful “community care” contracts, freezing bonuses, and eliminating the department-wide financial mismanagement that has led to billions in improper spending each year.

The bottom line: Don’t reward bad behavior and poor performance. Congress should not give the VA more funding or more spending flexibility until the department proves it can embrace and advance needed reforms.

Caldwell is the political and legislative director of Concerned Veterans for America. He also served as an infantryman with the Marines and deployed to Iraq.



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