A Lack of Funding Isn't the VA's Problem

A Lack of Funding Isn't the VA's Problem

By Sen. Tom Coburn - July 25, 2014

As VA reform continues to languish in Congress pressure is growing on members to solve the problem with Washington’s oldest solution – more funding.

As Garry Augustine, Executive Director of Disabled American Veterans Disabled Veterans, argued recently in the Wall Street Journal, the VA needs “more money – and a predictable funding stream – to do its job.” Augustine and others are right to fault Congress for not doing its job of setting priorities but a lack of funding is not the VA’s main problem.

The numbers show the VA has hardly been strapped for cash. Funding for the VA has gone up 57 percent since 2008. And at facilities where the worst abuses occurred, such as Phoenix, funding was ample enough to finance to lavish bonuses for the very officials who should have been held accountable for harming veterans. Across the country, the problem has not been a lack of funds but terrible misuses of taxpayer funds that were already directed to help veterans get the care they need.

Moreover, the problems at the VA are not understaffed and overburdened hospitals as much as much as poor management and a lack of accountability and oversight. While funding increased 57 percent since 2008 the number of patients treated at VA facilities went up only 13.8 percent. In other words, funding growth outpaced the growth in patient load by a more than four to one margin.

Also during this time period, the number of full-time physicians at the VA went up 40 percent – again, far more than the patient load. And these significant funding increases went through even though VA doctors, on average, see half as many patients as their private sector counterparts. Poor management is a problem more funding won’t solve.

Members and outside lobbyists are also arguing that the VA needs not only more funding but more earmarks. But the earmark era itself caused congressional oversight to atrophy and abuses to grow unchecked. For decades, Congress ignored repeated warning about delays and dysfunction at the VA while it occupied itself with funding Bridges to Nowhere and Woodstock Museums.

Plus, Congress has already tried – and failed – to fix this problem with “directed” or earmarked funds. In Nevada, taxpayers funded a $600 million “state of the art” medical facility in North Las Vegas, yet Nevada continues to be the state with the longest disability claim backlog in the country. Incidentally, the facility is now costing taxpayers almost $1 billion due to cost overruns and mismanagement. The VA built an emergency room that was too small and the facility was missing an ambulance drop-off ramp. I detailed this example and many others in my recent report, “Death, Delay and Dismay at the VA.”

Returning to the era earmark would guarantee that the systematic problems at the VA go unresolved. The sad fact is politicians don’t do attention-getting ribbon-cutting ceremonies around unceremonious but essential tasks like reducing wait times or filling potholes. Yet, this is the very kind of tedious, difficult work members are paid to do and will be rewarded for doing by a public that is desperately awaiting results and action.

The benchmark of real reform at the VA is an effort to solve the real problem, which is Congress’ failure to empower VA officials to manage, and Congress’ failure to give veterans real choices. Both of those problems can be solved by making it easier for VA officials to fire bad actors and by giving veterans real choices and spending power when they face long wait times.

Congress’ lack of oversight and unwillingness to tackle real problems with real solutions contributed to the deaths of more than 1,000 veterans. Solving this problem is not as difficult as Congress makes it seem. But falling back on more funding as our default solution is the surest way to cause more veterans to fall through the cracks. 

Tom Coburn is a U.S. Senator from Oklahoma.

Sen. Tom Coburn

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