Veterans Affairs leaders were scheduled to unveil later this month a department-wide blueprint for changes to staffing levels and facility planning that could have long-term effects on the health care system’s footprint across America for years to come.
Now, because of the ongoing pandemic, those plans will have to wait a little longer.
Department leaders on Friday announced a delay of up to six weeks in unveiling the report — part of the Asset and Infrastructure Review underway within VA for the last two years — because of staffing issues caused by the recent surge in coronavirus cases.
Senior officials said the report will still likely be completed by Jan. 31, the original reveal date, but that VA Secretary Denis McDonough opted to delay its publishing in the Federal Register because he wants to discuss the recommendations with department staff first.
The clinical demands of increased COVID-19 cases linked to the new Omicron variant and limited in-person attendance at some VA facilities make those meetings impossible over the next few weeks, officials said.
The market assessment work — which includes a review of the 7,500 buildings VA owns and operates across America today — has been eagerly anticipated by critics of the department for years, who argue VA is in need of a base-closing-style review to ensure officials aren’t wasting money on outdated locations.
In the past, VA officials have said they have nearly 1,000 non-vacant but underused facilities spread across the country, creating a significant drain on department resources. But closing many of them would require an act of Congress.
The secretary’s recommendations could include partially or totally closing ones in areas with little use from veteran patients and constructing new ones in areas of greater demand.
It’s also designed to take into account what other private-sector health care options are available in regions with existing VA facilities, to determine whether the department is providing duplicative services that may be more cheaply and conveniently accessed through community care options.
Once the report is made public, it will be reviewed by a nine-person independent commission for review. That panel will hold public hearings on the recommendations and offer its own suggestions directly to the president, with a deadline for its work of March 2023.
Members of the panel were supposed to be named last fall. However, not all of the spots have been filled yet. VA officials have said they are waiting on lawmakers to finalize the list.
Senior VA officials said the new delay in the secretary’s report should not adversely affect the commission’s timeline, but they also could not say when the commission members will be publicly announced.
As of Friday afternoon, VA had reported more than 58,000 active cases of coronavirus among patients across 140 department medical centers. Before the last few weeks, the highest daily total for VA has been only about 21,000 cases.
The sharp increase in COVID-19 cases within the system mirrors the same spike across America over the last month. Health officials have said the numbers could climb even higher in coming weeks.
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.