Senators hope new staffing and less red tape would help VA stem cost overruns and delays that have plagued development of new medical centers.
A bipartisan pair of senators is looking to make it easier for the Veterans Affairs Department to lease new medical facilities, introducing a bill the lawmakers say would cut red tape in the process.
The Build, Utilize, Invest, Lease and Deliver (BUILD) for Veterans Act (S. 3089) would also require VA to place at least one employee at each medical center whose sole job would surround overseeing construction and leasing projects in the area. While VA has long enjoyed growing budgets and authorizations for new facilities, it has consistently faced backlash for cost overruns and delays as it attempts to build or lease them. The department opened a highly touted new medical center in Colorado in 2018, for example, five years late and $1 billion over budget.
“Too often, veterans—and the dedicated VA employees and medical providers who serve them—find VA facilities outdated or cramped for space,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who serves as the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee and introduced the measure. “And unfortunately, the process for updating or replacing that space is inundated with red tape.”
The measure would make it easier for VA to move forward with leases on major medical centers by eliminating the requirement they must first be authorized in law. Instead, the House and Senate VA committees would need only to pass a resolution approving the lease. It also would expand “enhanced-use” leases, which allow the department to rent out underutilized property to the private sector. To date, the department has used that capacity primarily to provide housing for homeless veterans, but the BUILD for Veterans Act would broaden that to include community resource centers, non-profit service providers and other centers to assist veterans.
“Gridlock in Congress has too often delayed the VA from securing the facilities it needs to provide critical services to our veterans,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who co-sponsored the bill, adding it would streamline leasing approval so veterans “can get the care they need, when they need it.”
The expansion of VA facilities has been a sticking point in Congress—particularly among Democrats—since the passage of a 2014 law that gave veterans access to private sector health care on the government’s dime. President Trump signed a law in 2018 to expand that access, causing many lawmakers and some stakeholders to express concern the reforms would steal resources from VA’s own facilities. The 2018 law also required VA to assess underutilized facilities it could sell off.
Pat Murray, deputy director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ National Legislative Service, praised the bill, saying it would provide additional resources for veterans.
“VA’s infrastructure backlog and unused building lists keep growing by the day,” Murray said. Sens. Tester and Hawley’s BUILD for Veterans Act would begin to eliminate these expanding lists and make real changes that would benefit veterans and VA.”
The measure would also require VA to solicit input from veterans on the need for new infrastructure. It would call on the department to assess all of its facilities for climate change resilience, as well as their physical capacities to house systems related to forthcoming electronic health records.