Lawmakers are accusing Veterans Affairs Department officials of creating and concealing an almost $3 billion budget hole that threatens health care for millions, but appear reluctantly willing to move forward on the department's plans for a quick fix before hospital shutdowns occur.
They propose moving about $3 billion from the new Choice Card program approved by Congress last summer to cover shortfalls in other, separately funded private-care programs — the reason for the shortfall.
On Wednesday, VA Secretary Bob McDonald touted that plan to members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee as a commonsense move that must be completed quickly.
"My worst nightmare is a veteran going without care because I have money in the wrong pocket," McDonald said. "I earlier compared the inflexibility we face to having one checking account for gasoline and another for groceries. The inflexibility we're talking about today is even more puzzling — I can't spend food money for food."
But lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle called that an oversimplification of the problem, which they see as stemming from poor forecasting and poor management by VA officials.
"There's a lack of trust and transparency, and giving them a blank check is not what we need to do," said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the veterans committee. "They knew they could come at the last minute and force the committee's hand, and make us appropriate the dollars to fix their budgeting problems."
Miller said he believes the problems stemming from VA leadership decisions undermine the Choice Card program, put in place in response to long wait times facing veterans at health clinics last year.
While that program has slowly grown, costs and use of other programs for care outside VA have skyrocketed. McDonald has been asking for months for to get more flexibility with the Choice Card funds, and suggested the wide range of non-VA care options need to be consolidated in future years.
Lawmakers on the committee also complained that the VA gave only a few weeks' warning of the looming budget crisis, despite internal indications months ago that actual spending was veering away from earlier projections.
Still. Miller said he sees few other options besides raiding the Choice Card funds to fix the budget shortfall without imperiling services for veterans.
Both he and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said they expect to have legislation drafted by early next week to correct the problem.
Isakson blasted the VA for causing public alarm over the possibility of a shutdown, rather than working with Congress for a calmer compromise. But, like Miller, he said veterans should not be caught up in the political games.
Congress and VA officials already are sparring over next year's budget as well, with early congressional proposals trimming about $1 billion off the White House's fiscal 2016 request for the department.
Lawmakers have promised even closer scrutiny of that $164 billion appropriations plan before it is finalized in light of the VA's near-term money problems.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.