VA Budget Supports Transformation

February 13, 2015

At a February 11 hearing before the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald and several veteran service organizations spoke on the department’s budget for the coming fiscal year.  

McDonald’s remarks focused primarily on efforts at changing the VA’s culture and improving its health and benefits systems. The $169 billion budget proposed by the president aims to address the expanding need for health care and services, improving the efficiency of claims processing, and eliminating veterans’ homelessness.   

MyVA, McDonald’s new initiative to redesign the VA around the needs of veterans and their families, is the largest department-wide transformation effort in VA’s almost 150-year history.   

Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) expressed concerns about the Veterans Choice Program Congress approved last year and how it fit into the department’s budget proposal. The Choice Program allows some veterans to receive health care outside of the VA.  

Only a few of the veterans eligible to use the Veterans Choice Program have done so. The administration seeks prior approval to reprogram Choice funding for other needs if demand for outside care does not pick up. The request was met with resistance from committee members.  

“VA’s proposal to reallocate any portion of the $10 billion appropriated for the Choice Program last summer is a non-starter,” said Miller. “I understand there is a lot of uncertainty about the program’s utilization…so if there is any reallocation it will be to further improve and strengthen the program itself.”  

With only three months of limited data since the program launched last November, it’s too early to tell how effective the Choice Program will be, particularly when considering VA’s past record of being unable to provide the committee good data on the cost of a providing health care services.    

VSOs at the hearing acknowledged a difference in the management and culture of VA since McDonald’s confirmation. While generally laudatory of McDonald’s efforts, they emphasized that more work needs to be done to improve health care administration, enhance public-private partnerships and community engagement to deliver the right mix of VA and community services, and to address facility infrastructure and construction shortfalls.   

One committee member, however, was not persuaded that substantive progress has been achieved. Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) and McDonald had an unusually heated exchange over a major VA medical center construction project in Denver. Coffman pointed to a number of extraordinary problems glossed over by the secretary and predicted, “McDonald will not have made a dent in changing the culture of the VA” by the end of the president’s term.  

McDonald, offended by the attack, fired back, saying, “I’ve been here six months—you’ve been here longer than I have. If there’s a problem in Denver, you own it more than I do.”    

At the end of the hearing, Miller noted that H.R. 216, a MOAA-supported bill sponsored by Ranking Member Corinne Brown (D-Fla.) would go to the full committee for a vote the next day. Brown’s bill would establish a Chief Strategy Officer and align the VA’s strategic planning process with that of the Department of Defense.   

The bill passed and now heads to the House floor for debate.