Without a budget fix, officials have said the department might have to shutter facilities, furlough workers, and freeze hiring starting in August.
A deal to give the Veterans Affairs Department budget flexibility to avoid shutting hospitals this summer is imminent, according to a top Senate Republican.
Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said on Wednesday that the House is working to get a package over to the Senate so the upper chamber can vote on it next week. Isakson, who said the deal would allow the VA to shift existing funds to cover a $2.5 billion budget shortfall, believed House lawmakers would finish crafting a plan on Thursday. The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, led by Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., did not immediately respond Thursday to questions about when the plan would be unveiled, or when the full House might vote on it.
But Miller has said repeatedly that Congress will not allow the VA to close health care facilities or furlough personnel. “While we will not penalize veterans for VA’s management or transparency failures, the days when VA can just come to Congress and say ‘Cut us a check’ are gone,” Miller said at a Wednesday hearing with VA Secretary Bob McDonald on the budget crisis. “Asking for flexibility without supporting information is not enough.”
The VA has asked Congress for permission to shift about $2.5 billion in existing funds -- away from the Choice program -- to cover shortfalls elsewhere in the budget, specifically the department’s Community Care programs. Those programs allow the VA to reimburse providers outside the VA system for care. The Choice program is a key component of the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act enacted last summer. It allows certain vets to receive health care temporarily outside the VA if the department is unable to schedule an appointment for the veteran within 30 days, or the veteran lives more than 40 miles from a VA facility. Both programs -- Choice and Community Care -- pay for non-VA health care for vets.
Without a budget fix, officials have said the department might have to close facilities, furlough workers, and freeze hiring starting in August.
Lawmakers are running out of time to put something together because of the impending congressional August recess. The House is in session until July 30, while the Senate’s last day before August recess is Aug. 7. “We’ve got to get it done,” Isakson said during a Wednesday markup. “They [the House] are leaving [soon].”
House and Senate VA committee leaders met last week for nearly four hours with top department officials “over this whole issue of shutting down hospitals and running out of money,” Isakson said.
The Georgia Republican said the group talked about a way to break down the funding silos so that the VA had more flexibility to use already-appropriated money where it is immediately needed. He said there is an effort to fix the problem long-term, not just for this crisis.
Lawmakers have complained that the department knew about the shortfall for months, but did not alert them to the problem until the last minute. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., on Wednesday called VA’s management of the issue “woefully inadequate” and expressed frustration over the department “blaming” Congress for the current fiscal emergency. “If we solve this problem now, quote ‘solve this problem now,’ are we only setting the stage that, months from now, we’ll be in the same position in which there is another shortfall with insufficient funds?”
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said Congress needs to “untie” McDonald’s hands when it comes to reallocating already-appropriated funds, while at the same time ensuring accountability and oversight over how the money is spent. Tester on Wednesday also expressed concern that the House would include “extracurricular” provisions in its plan to bail out the VA, and said he wished the Senate was shepherding the legislation. Isakson, a former House member, said allowing the House to take the lead was a practical decision.
“The reason the House is leading is, if we can’t get it out of the House, we won’t get anything done anyway,” the chairman said. “I wanted them to go ahead and make a commitment that [they] would get something done, and I’ve talked to the Speaker as well, and I think they will.”