Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald says his department is so cash-strapped that it’s struggling to accommodate the massive number of veterans seeking treatment from the health system.
At the same time, the agency continues spending nearly $25 million a year on hundreds of vacant or underused facilities across the country. Closing or consolidating those facilities could free up millions of dollars that could otherwise be used to pay more doctors and nurses to treat the backlog of patients at medical facilities across the country, according to McDonald.
Speaking to reporters at the Association of Health Care Journalists’ annual conference in Santa Clara, California, the VA secretary suggested that doing so could allow the VA to hire at least 200 more registered nurses and pay for 144,000 primary care visits for veterans.
“We need to move forward with closing locations that are not economically sustainable and old, outdated buildings that are challenging to maintain and provide little or no value to our customers,” McDonald said.
The VA has 336 buildings across the country, covering about 10.5 million square feet, that are either sitting vacant or less than 50 percent occupied, according to McDonald’s early Congressional testimony. The secretary, who took over the troubled department last July, has urged lawmakers to close or consolidate the facilities — but his suggestion hasn’t gained much traction on Capitol Hill.
While these buildings sit empty, the VA is building new facilities using emergency funding granted by Congress. Last summer, lawmakers approved a major $16.5 billion overhaul bill in response to a spate of investigations that revealed that VA health facilities across the country had created hidden waitlists that kept patients waiting months, even years for treatment.
The extra funding so far has gone toward opening up more facilities and beefing up the VA’s staff to accommodate the increasing demand. McDonald says that, even with the savings that could be gained from the unused space, his agency needs more money and more staffing in order to relieve the backlog of veterans waiting for treatment.
Though the Obama administration has requested a significant budget increase for the VA in 2016, it’s not likely that Congress will approve it. In fact, a subcommittee in the Republican-controlled House just approved a $1.2 billion cut to the agency’s budget.
McDonald said if the cuts go through, it “will create another crisis” especially as demand ticks upward. As veterans age and become more dependent on VA medical services, the number of claims is expected to rise to 1.5 million in 2017 from 1 million in 2009.
McDonald has spent much of the past year attempting to repair his agency’s tarnished image. Lawmakers remain skeptical, though — especially given the department’s continuing problems. For example, the VA has been under scrutiny for lax oversight of a massive hospital facility in Denver that is years behind schedule and has racked up a $1.7 billion price tag that is still growing — the most expensive construction project in the department’s history.
“I feel like I need a bath,” said Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN) said about the facility’s costs during a recent congressional hearing. “This $1 billion could have provided a tremendous amount of health care — examining rooms and ICU’s — not on winning architectural awards. But now we are stuck in the ultimate catch-22 — we don’t want to go ahead, but we can’t quit.”
In another example of the VA’s lack of progress, the Associated Press last month published an analysis of how well the department has performed since Congress passed the emergency funding package last year. It concluded that, so far, not much has changed.
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