Acting head of VA says agency needs $17.6 billion to fix problems


WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs needs $17.6 billion in additional funds over the next three years to meet the current needs of its patients, the troubled agency’s acting director said Wednesday.

Testifying for the first time on Capitol Hill, interim VA secretary Sloan Gibson told the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs that the money would help the agency decrease appointment wait times and hire more doctors for patients.

But the request divided the Senate panel. Democrats, like Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, supported the appeal, while Republicans, including Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska, questioned whether care would actually improve if the VA were given more money.

“This sounds so similar to what we’ve heard over the years,” Johanns said, adding that the committee has been very generous to the VA and has routinely met requests for additional funding in the past.

“And if you can’t clean up your act, then guess what? You lose out,” he said. “I don’t think you need more billions and billions of dollars.”

The money would come on top of funds included in a separate bipartisan reform bill, passed by the Senate in June.

That bill, approved 93-2, would allow the VA to do more contracting with private medical centers to meet demand, something Johanns said would be better for the department than beefing up its own staff.

Granting veterans more access to private sector care through the Senate proposal, if phased in by 2016, will cost $38 billion a year, according the Congressional Budget Office.