Veterans Affairs Department officials want nearly $18 billion more in funding over the next three years to hire more clinicians, lease more space and cut down on wait times for medical appointments.
The money is also partly designed to serve as a down payment on rebuilding VA's reputation, proving to the public that with enough resources, the department can once again be a reliable asset for veterans seeking care.
In his first testimony on Capitol Hill, acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson acknowledged to the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee that VA today "has serious problems" that will take years to correct.
"We understand the problems we face. We own them. We are taking decisive action to begin to resolve them," Gibson said. "We can turn these challenges into the greatest opportunity for improvement in the history of the department."
Those challenges include nearly nonstop scandals over the past four months, including recent revelations about whistleblower retaliation and data manipulation in dozens of facilities.
But the overarching issue that forced the resignation of Gibson's predecessor — retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, who stepped down in May — was system wait time problems, covered up by administrators trying to protect performance bonuses.
As of July 3, more than 636,000 veterans — about 10 percent of VA's total appointment caseload — faced a wait of a month or more for medical appointments,
To fix that, Gibson wants to hire 10,000 clinicians in coming years and find more space for medical appointments through leases, VA facility improvements and new construction — moves that he said would provide not only a short-term fix but also a longer-term solution to the underlying resource issues.
"I know it sounds like huge numbers," he told lawmakers. "But [VA] historically has not managed to veterans' requirements, we've managed to budget numbers."
Congress is already considering an emergency VA reform bill that would boost funding by about $30 billion over the next three years, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates. But that measure would allot only $500 million to new hiring initiatives; the rest would be used to increase access to private care options for veterans having trouble accessing VA care.
The department already has seen dramatic jumps in funding over the last decade, adding about $100 billion to its base budget since fiscal 2004 and about $70 billion since fiscal 2008.
The additional funding request drew concerns from several senators, who questioned whether better management and use of existing resources would provide more results for veterans.
But Gibson insisted that addressing the fundamental problems behind the wait times will require more resources, and failing to back those plans "will mean that the wait times will get longer."
He also outlined a number of recent audits and policy updates to address the other scandals, and repeated his promise that VA whistleblowers will be protected — and those who retaliate against them will face punishment.
The pending reform legislation would also make it easier to fire senior executives for mismanagement and poor performance.
Committee chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said he hopes that measure will move forward soon. But so far, issues of the cost and scope of the bill have held up a final draft.