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Veterans Affairs Urges Congress For Help In Closing Budget Gap


The Department of Veterans Affairs is still struggling a year after the scandal over long waiting lists at its facilities. The VA announced today it expects a budget shortfall this year of more than $2.5 billion, and the number of veterans facing long waits for appointments has actually increased. NPR's David Welna has more.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: The VA's health care woes have prompted big changes in the past year, including the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. And congressional Republicans pushed through funding for veterans to get their health care from private doctors rather than from a system that many in the GOP regard as socialized medicine. But House Speaker John Boehner said today the VA health care system remains a mess.


JOHN BOEHNER: We gave the VA the resources to improve their care and the waiting lists are even longer. And the VA's problem isn't funding. It's outright failure, absolute failure to take care of our veterans.

WELNA: As Boehner spoke, top officials from the VA testified before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee. The panel's chairman, Florida Republican Jeff Miller, said despite repeated meetings over the past few months with the VA, he'd heard nothing about a budget shortfall until now.


JEFF MILLER: And unfortunately I suspect that had I not called this hearing we would still not be aware today of the $2.6 billion funding shortfall that the Veterans Health Administration is currently estimating.

WELNA: There to defend the VA was its deputy secretary, Sloan Gibson. He told the panel that in fact many things have improved over the past year.


SLOAN GIBSON: We completed 7 million more appointments for care inside VA and in the community than in the previous 12 months, double the additional capacity to - required to meet those veterans' needs of a year ago. Average wait time for completed appointments - four days for primary care, five days for specialty care, three days for mental health.

WELNA: The VA has also increased its medical staff by 12 percent, Gibson said, while expanding care provided by outside doctors by a third.


GIBSON: Clearly we are improving access, providing more care to more veterans. What's the challenge? As we improve access, even more veterans are coming to VA for their care.

WELNA: The result, he added, has been that the number of veterans waiting more than 30 days for appointments is 50 percent greater than a year ago. Michigan Republican Dan Benishek asked Gibson how that squared with the budget shortfall.


DAN BENISHEK: There's $2.5 billion missing...

GIBSON: And it is not missing.

BENISHEK: Over a billion dollars somewhere else

GIBSON: No, sir, it is not missing. It's money that's going to pay for veteran care in the community.

WELNA: Gibson said beyond the costs incurred by ever more veterans qualifying for health care, the budget shortfall is also being caused by expensive treatment for nearly 200,000 veterans with hepatitis C. California Democrat Mark Takano pointed out that the pills for treating hepatitis C cost a thousand dollars apiece for programs such as Medicare and the Affordable Care Act, which are barred by law from negotiating drug prices.


MARK TAKANO: And I've heard estimates that VA is instead paying closer to $600 a pill. Is that correct?

GIBSON: I would like to not have to answer that question. We work very closely and collaboratively with the manufacturers of those drugs and have been able to reach attractive arrangements.

WELNA: Gibson promised the VA will keep seeking other ways to cut costs, but he also said Congress has to allow more flexibility to use money that's earmarked for private health care. Most veterans, he noted, still prefer using the VA system. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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