(Washington D.C.) – U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) today called on Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Jim Nicholson to provide Congress with an accurate plan for the health care of America's veterans, a plan based on real numbers and real demands for service. The call comes after the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a stunning report detailing the VA's failure to provide accurate information for budget needs in fiscal years 2005 and 2006. The report found that the VA used faulty information when planning for overall health care demands and that it estimated health care costs for service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan based on prewar data.
"Protecting and taking care of our soldiers is the most basic responsibility for those planning and executing a war," said Murray. "Unfortunately, this report offers a stunning indictment of this Administration's commitment to our troops when they return home from Iraq and Afghanistan."
The GAO report was commissioned to investigate two emergency budget requests made by the President in 2005 for a total of nearly $3 billion. Those Presidential requests came after Senator Murray made a similar request for additional funds based on reports of under-funded services for veterans. The GAO looked into why realistic funding levels were not initially requested by the VA and why additional funds were needed. The GAO report found that the additional funding was necessary because the VA prepared their '05 and '06 budgets using "unrealistic assumptions, errors in estimation, and insufficient data." Specifically, the report found that:
- The VA failed to report the problems they were experiencing to Congress in a timely manner.
- The VA underestimated the cost of serving veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan because they used budget information that predates the war.
- The VA used faulty information on when they would see real dollars from proposed cost saving measures.
- The VA in many cases did not have any actual means of implementing proposed cost saving measures.
"This is really about the VA being frank with Congress and the American people about its needs," said Murray. "When the VA plays politics with their budget, America's veterans get shortchanged."
"It's time for Secretary Nicholson to explain how the VA is going to put in place a system that will be able to handle the cost of providing mental health care, reducing patient wait times, and providing for an influx of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans," said Murray. "I have not seen that plan, and today's report certainly does not lead me to believe such a plan exists."
"This independent report once again illustrates a VA that is incapable of preparing a real plan for the care of our nation's veterans," said Senator Murray. "There was no plan when service members were sent off to Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no plan now, and most tragically, there is no plan in place for when they return home."
Senator Murray has consistently called upon Secretary Nicholson to provide Congress with the full scope of the VA's fiscal needs.
In March 2005, after hearing reports from various veterans groups citing long lines for care Senator Murray requested $2.85 billion in supplemental spending to meet the increased demand. In the months after Murray's request, the VA continually misled Congress about the existence of a budget shortfall.
In April of 2005, Secretary Nicholson wrote that he did not "foresee any challenges" that would preclude the VA from providing "timely, quality service." The Secretary also testified in a June 2005 Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing that the VA had "an adequate level right now" for mental health. However, those on the front lines of the VA's effort to provide care have not echoed the Secretary's confidence in the Department's ability to provide for Veterans. In fact, as recently as earlier this year, Frances Murphy, M.D., Undersecretary for Health Policy Coordination at our Department of Veterans Affairs, noted that some VA clinics could not provide mental health or substance abuse care to veterans, or if they do, "waiting lists render that care virtually inaccessible."
Senator Murray's 2005 request for $2.85 billion in supplemental funding was ultimately denied by the Republican-led Senate. Shortly after Murray's effort was thwarted, the President's requests provided the funding for the $3 billion budget shortfall that the VA revealed in June 2005.
The GAO report released today was requested by Senators Daniel Akaka (D-HI), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Ken Salazar (D-CO) and Murray. Senator Murray is a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee.