WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs’ version of a base closing round could start years ahead of schedule, department officials told Congress on Wednesday.
Under the VA Mission Act signed into law last year, the president is authorized to appoint an Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission for the department in 2022. To inform the group’s work, VA officials were given three years to perform regional market assessments across the country to determine areas where there were medical facility shortages, gluts and other challenges.
On Wednesday, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said those assessments were delayed slightly late last year but could still be finished in the next 12 months. If so, that could create a problematic gap between collecting that information and starting evaluations in 2022.
Supporters admit the idea of closing VA buildings nationwide will be controversial, but said too many existing facilities are aging and underused.
“We’ll come back to you this summer and give you an assessment of where things are,” he said. “If we can, to meet the expectations of this committee and the changing need of veterans, we’re going to come to Congress and ask to move that timeline up.”
The idea of a base-closing-style round for VA has been controversial for many advocates, including lawmakers who could see major hospitals in their districts closed due to dwindling patient numbers.
But VA officials have repeatedly warned that their current national footprint includes hundreds of outdated or obsolete facilities, and department administrators have severe restrictions in managing those locations.
They have also said that the asset review could mean more facility construction in certain areas, as department officials see regional population shifts for veterans.
Dr. Richard Stone, the executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, told members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee that across his system today, about 63 percent of the our medical beds are filled.
“That’s not an efficient use of the system,” he added.
The VA Mission Act, expected to be taken up quickly in the Senate, includes new community care rules, a caregiver stipend expansion and more.
Committee ranking member Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said he is anxious to move ahead with the review work.
“We know veterans are moving south and west,” he said. “VA needs to be more nimble with how it’s able to move. We can’t keep thousands of beds underutilized or not used at all.”
Costs or savings for the asset review have not yet been determined. House Democratic leadership has not indicated whether they would support speeding up the timeline for the process, a change that would require congressional approval.