- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2014

It will take two years, 1,500 more doctors and more than $17 billion in taxpayer money to fix the problems plaguing the VA, acting Secretary Sloan Gibson told Congress on Wednesday.

It was the first broad estimate of damage at the Veterans Affairs Department, which has been reeling from months of reports of cooked books, long wait lists, poor patient care and punishment of whistleblowers.

Mr. Gibson told the Senate Veterans Affairs’ Committee that the VA has serious problems and said it will take more money and a culture change at his department to get it all fixed.

“We must, all of us, seize this opportunity. We can turn these challenges into the greatest opportunity for improvement in the history of this department,” he said. “I believe in as little as two years, the conversation can change.”

That timeline would mean the changes would be completed at the end of President Obama’s term.

The cost figure could be a stumbling block as the VA tries to move forward, but Mr. Gibson said the money is needed. He said the department’s budgets have been inadequate, with no clear way of determining what to do with the funding.

“The veterans ended up being the shock absorber in that process,” he said.

This time, he said, the VA has built a budget based on estimates of actual needs.

The $17.6 billion he said would be needed over the next few years would go to hire 10,000 more employees, 1,500 of whom would be doctors and the others nurses and support staff; buy a new scheduling system, which wouldn’t be up and running for at least two years; and lease more space to fit in more appointments.

Mr. Gibson said the department will need to expedite its hiring processes to meet those goals, as well as offer incentives such as student loan forgiveness to recruit and retain doctors while the private health care system also faces physician shortages.

Mr. Gibson took over the department at the end of May when Eric K. Shinseki resigned. A confirmation hearing for Bob McDonald, a former head of Procter & Gamble tapped by the president to be the permanent secretary, is scheduled for next week.

Some senators agreed that the government must pump more money into the system, but Sen. Mike Johanns, Nebraska Republican, said money hasn’t fixed the department’s problems in the past and won’t work this time either.

“This sounds so similar to what we’ve heard over the years,” Mr. Johanns said. “‘I need more money.’ ‘I need to be bigger, faster, grander.’ ‘I need a bigger bureaucracy.’ ‘I need to hire more people,’ and on and on and on.”

The House and Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation that would allow veterans who have been waiting too long for appointments to seek private care at taxpayers’ expense. The Senate version of the bill provides $500 million to increase VA staff.

Mr. Gibson said he already has made progress in fixing the most acute problems that came to light after whistleblowers, and then internal audits, found that the department was altering its appointment books and leaving some veterans waiting too long for care.

He said the VA has taken the first steps by purchasing an up-to-date scheduling system and referring 543,000 patients to private care. He also said the department has contacted 160,000 veterans to get them off the wait lists.

But Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the ranking Republican on the Veterans Affairs’ Committee, said more needs to be done to repair the “horrendous blemish on the VA’s reputation.”

“The culture that has developed at VA and the lack of management and accountability is simply reprehensible, and it will no longer be tolerated,” he said.

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