WASHINGTON — The testimony of the acting Veterans Affairs secretary Wednesday bolstered the claim of Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., that the VA is underfunded.
Sloan Gibson appeared before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, of which Sanders is chairman, to discuss the department’s actions since major deficiencies were revealed in late May.
Gibson also requested $17.6 billion in additional money over the next three years to hire 10,000 additional VA employees, including 1,500 doctors, and to build eight new facilities and lease 77 additional buildings.
“The trust of the veterans we serve and the trust of the American people and their representatives has eroded,” Gibson said. “We will have to earn that trust back through deliberate and decisive action.”
Sanders, author of the Senate VA improvement bill, said Gibson’s testimony on funding could assist in conference negotiations on the Senate and House versions of the bill.
“I think it will make a point that some of us have been making for a while,” he said.
Gibson listed six major issues at the VA, including long wait times for veterans, scheduling improprieties, and a number of deeply ingrained cultural issues in the department that discourage oversight.
“We have serious problems,” Gibson said.
He described a number of changes he has instituted since taking the helm of the department after Eric Shinseki resigned in late May.
The changes in the VA are aimed at expanding access to care, including boosting the number of mobile medical units and extending hours at VA care facilities.
Gibson also announced a patient satisfaction measurement program, suspension of service awards within the VA, and removal of the 14-day scheduling goal in order to mitigate any incentives to falsify data.
The hearing Wednesday occurred in the midst of tense conference negotiations between House and Senate leaders over their respective bills to fix the VA.
The bills—both of which were passed in early June with broad partisan support — include many similar provisions, including expanding VA authority to refer veterans to private care facilities should they live more than 40 miles from a VA hospital or if they are experiencing long delays.
Legislation out of both chambers also allows the VA secretary to fire or demote employees based on poor performance and both bills call for an independent audit of the VA.
Sanders’ bill differs from its House counterpart by allocating funds for constructing medical facilities and bringing in more doctors and nurses.
Sanders said he expects a bill will go to the president’s desk before the August recess.
Senate Republicans on Wednesday questioned Gibson on the quality of care at the VA, and suggested that veterans could access better care in the private sector.
“I just think you guys need competition, and I feel very, very strongly about that,” said Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb. “And if you can’t clean up your act, then guess what: You lose out.”
He added, “I don’t think you need more billions and billions of dollars.”
Democrats defended the funding provisions as necessary for a department that has been overwhelmed by 1.4 million new patients, including many troops from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sanders also said the VA needed more resources to combat the mental wounds from war, like post-traumatic stress disorder.
“While it’s important we put out the current fire, unless we effectively deal with the long-term capacity issues facing the VA we are going to be back here year after year,” Sanders said.
Jasper Craven is affiliated with the Boston University Journalism Program.MORE IN Vermont News
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