VA secretary optimistic Congress will plug budget gap

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald said Thursday he's confident that Congress will act soon to address a looming budget crisis that could force his agency to shut down some VA hospitals, freeze hiring and take other belt-tightening steps.

During a visit to the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis, McDonald expressed optimism that by the end of next week Congress will endorse transferring up to $3 billion from the Veterans Choice program to close the Department of Veterans Affairs' budget gap.

He testified Wednesday before the House Veterans Affairs committee on the need for lawmakers to close that $2.5 billion shortfall, which has been driven over the past year by a big increase in demand among veterans for health care services.

"I'm quite confident Congress is going to come together with us and that we're going to get the ability to take that Choice money," McDonald said after touring the Roudebush complex, which is Indiana's largest VA hospital and treats more than 60,000 veterans a year.

The VA said last week that unless Congress acts, it may shutter some of its hospitals. McDonald, who became the VA's chief last July, said the agency also is considering furloughs, hiring freezes and other steps to close the funding gap for the budget year that ends Sept. 30.

The Veterans Choice program was the centerpiece of the VA overhaul that Congress approved last year in response to a scandal over veterans' long waits for medical care and VA employees' falsification of records to cover up those delays. The Choice program makes it easier for veterans to receive federally paid medical care from local doctors instead of at VA facilities.

McDonald said the VA has completed 7 million more appointments this year than last, thanks to its hiring of more than 1,100 new doctors over the past year and other steps. Those include 4.5 million additional appointments with private doctors under the Choice program.

But he acknowledged the VA needs to do more to regain the public's confidence in the wake of last year's scandal.

"We know that across the nation trust has been compromised in the VA, and we're working hard to win it back one veteran at a time," McDonald said.

Government data reviewed by The Associated Press earlier this year showed that the VA's South Bend clinic ranked 45th nationally among VA hospitals and clinics with the highest percentage of appointments that took 31 days or longer to complete.

The AP's analysis showed that about 7 percent of the South Bend clinic's appointments failed to meet the VA's goal for seeing patients within 30 days — well above the national average of 2.8 percent. The clinic had the highest percentage of long waits for appointments among the 18 Indiana VA clinics and hospitals the AP reviewed.

U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly announced Wednesday that the VA has approved building a new outpatient clinic in nearby Mishawaka that will be more than three times the size of the existing South Bend clinic it will replace. That 65,000-square-foot clinic is due to be completed in the spring of 2018, providing expanded medical services for veterans.

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