Congress has about three weeks left to sort out a $3 billion hole in the Department of Veterans Affairs budget or else risk shutting down some VA hospital operations.

Officials from the department and key congressional committees have said they're confident a plan can be worked out before the end of July, preventing any disruption in services to veterans.

But ongoing political squabbles over problems with VA and over unrelated budget fights could sideline the work, creating significant problems for patients.

The department first requested a funding fix for the budget gap three weeks ago, but has yet to see progress on the issue on Capitol Hill.

On Monday, VA officials submitted their latest update to the plan for shifting existing funds to cover shortfalls in the department's Care in the Community program — outsourced medical care for veterans — and for underfunded hepatitis C treatments.

Together, the two items have already pulled more than $2.5 billion from other VA accounts, including money previous assigned to clinical salaries, medical equipment and operational requirements.

"If these program funds are not restored, VA will face shutting down hospital operations during August 2015," VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson warned in a letter to lawmakers accompanying the funding proposals.

VA officials want to use about $10 billion authorized by Congress last summer to pay for the shortfall, but that money is tied only to outside services provided through the department's new Choice Card program.

Gibson testified last month that getting all of the new demand for outside care shifted to that program will take time, and the department needs more flexibility with the walled-off funds to ensure veterans can get needed care in the short-term.

At that hearing, House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., promised he would work "to give VA the flexibility it's seeking to use a limited amount of Choice funds for non-VA care, and ensure that no veteran suffers as a result of VA's mismanagement."

But lawmakers thus far have been resistant to other VA requests to tap into the Choice Card funding, even after department reports that the vast majority has gone unspent nearly a year into the program.

Critics accuse the department of trying to dismantle the new program to subsidize existing efforts with spotty results. VA leaders have promised the moves are designed to get the best care in the quickest way to veterans, and that they're committed to making the Choice Card program work over time.

The legislative proposal sent to Congress on Monday would free up $3 billion in Choice Card funds for use in the other areas, ensuring VA accounts don't end up with a deficit at the end of the fiscal year in September.

Gibson's letter warns the short-term budget fix will not address long-term challenges facing the department, adding that "VA will soon put forward a proposal to Congress that will rationalize these disparate authorities and create a unified, integrated approach to community care."

The House is scheduled to stay in session until July 31 before breaking for five weeks for its annual summer recess. The Senate is scheduled to leave town after the first week of August.

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.

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