Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Denis McDonough and VA Assistant Secretary for Management and Chief Financial Officer Jon Rychalski testified on April 15 before the House Military Construction, VA, and Related Agencies (MilCon-VA) appropriations subcommittee regarding President Joe Biden’s fiscal year (FY) 2022 budget request [refer to related story].
Subcommittee members addressed several topics, including the VA research program, the cost of health care covered by the VA, recruitment and retention of health care staff, and the aging VA infrastructure.
In his opening statement, McDonough highlighted the president’s proposed budget increase for the department’s veteran-centric research program. Subcommittee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) noted that the research program is one that subcommittee members “care deeply” about.
Wasserman Schultz questioned McDonough on the increasing costs of health care provided by the VA in-house and through the Community Care Network established in the VA MISSION Act. “With the cost of providing health care to our veterans growing exponentially, we really have to … start thinking seriously about how we are going to sustain these needs in years to come,” she said, citing concern about the impact of the VA’s growing health care costs to the subcommittee’s discretionary budget allocation.
McDonough noted that there has been a “significant increase” of veterans’ health care going to community providers and that veterans are receiving “more comprehensive options and care.” He also indicated a commitment to future discussions with subcommittee members on opportunities to remove the health care costs from the annual discretionary funding limits.
Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas) and Wasserman Schultz questioned witnesses on information technology (IT) and physical infrastructure needs at the VA. Rychalski noted that the full budget request will include details on the VA’s plans to use expiring appropriations for IT and physical infrastructure needs, given the VA’s new authority to reallocate expiring appropriations.
Wasserman Schultz cited “serious life and safety deficiencies” in existing VA physical infrastructure, and she shared enthusiasm for the president’s proposed $18 billion investment in VA infrastructure in the American Jobs Plan [refer to Washington Highlights, April 2].
“Given all the upgrades in the delivery of care and the technology-driven nature that we've just been discussing, we simply need to be in a position to more quickly upgrade and modernize VA facilities,” McDonough replied. He added that the American Jobs Plan investment would be beneficial in more rapidly achieving more modern facilities.
Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.) asked for an update on recruitment and retention of health care providers at the VA, following McDonough’s update that 39,000 staff vacancies remain, primarily in the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). McDonough noted that rates have been at historic lows for retirements and leave requests within the VHA during the pandemic. McDonough also thanked Congress for additional authority for pay raises and shared the VA’s efforts to increase professional development opportunities, especially in rural settings, to help with staff retention.
Additional details on the president’s budget request for the VA are expected in May.