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All the attention and funding that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has received from Congress and the American public hasn’t yet turned the VA into the organization that a growing number of U.S. veterans need.

Last Monday, Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson warned lawmakers that the department needs Congressional action this month to cover a $2.5-billion shortfall in its current-year budget.

The VA cites two main reasons for its budget gap: Veterans’ demand for treatment of hepatitis C has been much higher than budgeted this year with new, expensive treatment becoming available. Secondly, the Care in the Community program in which the VA outsources work has exceeded its budget.

The department’s leadership has asked Congress to grant budget flexibility that would allow it to shift up to $3 billion from the new Choice Card program to fill the budget holes. If Congress doesn’t act this month, the VA will have to reduce spending, possibly by closing hospitals, furloughing employees and freezing hiring, Gibson said.

Those dire measures are the polar opposite of what U.S. veterans need. The VA needs to fill staff vacancies, especially in Montana. The VA needs to make the department an attractive, rewarding place to work so it can recruit and retain excellent physicians, nurses and other professionals. The past 14 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have created a huge new population of veterans who returned home with serious disabilities from their military service. World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans are aging and requiring more care. Many veterans returned from Vietnam with hepatitis C.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., recently touched on some of the ingrained VA management deficiencies when he proposed legislation to upgrade the department’s health care workforce. Among other proposals, the bill aims to cut red tape that keeps some types of licensed mental health care professionals from being hired by the VA, seeks to expedite the filling of VA leadership vacancies, mandates leadership succession planning and provides incentives for physicians to work in the VA system.

Gibson said the VA completed 7 million more care appointments last year than in the year before. VA expects to spend $10.1 billion in the current fiscal year on private care for veterans; that’s $1.9 billion more than last year. VA already used up its $700 million budget for hepatitis C care and now projects it will need another $500 million to continue treatment for that liver disease through Sept. 30.

Last year, Congress allocated $10 billion to be used over three years for the new Choice Card to allow veterans to get care in their hometowns as an alternate to waiting longer or traveling to a distant VA facility. VA now wants to shift up to $3 billion from the Choice Card to fill the budget gaps.

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The VA is an easy target for blaming, but finger-pointing won’t improve care for veterans. VA Secretary Bob McDonald and Sloan, both in those jobs for just over one year, understand that the VA needs massive reforms to operate efficiently and effectively. But such a large organization won’t be completely transformed in one budget cycle.

If veterans need more of certain types of care, they should not be denied because Congress put the money in a different VA silo. Congress must act before lawmakers start their five-week vacations at month’s end.

The VA must stop operating in crisis mode. But above all, this nation must take care of our military veterans.

— Billings (Mont.) Gazette

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