Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) on Thursday criticized the Department of Veterans Affairs for failing to provide details for its request for $13.5 billion in funding to resolve the ongoing veterans health care crisis, and instead offering the House just a two-page description.
Miller, who chairs the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in a morning hearing that Congress has given the VA every resource it has required. He said the committee was surprised when Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson suddenly told a Senate hearing that he needed billions more in funding, and 10,000 more medical staffers.
Miller also said the VA has yet to fully explain how it would use new funding, which was originally $17.6 billion but has since been reduced to $13.5 billion. After asking the VA a second time for information, Miller said he received just a few pages.
“We got two pages,” Miller said as he held up the two pages. “That’s all we’ve got, two pages, entitled, ‘working estimate as of July 22 of 2014.’ ”
In a discussion with Gibson, Miller noted that Gibson has a banking background, and asked that if someone walked into his bank with just a few pieces of paper and asked for $1 million, “would you give them $1 million?”
“The honest answer there is, it probably would depend on who the borrower was,” Gibson answered. “But I understand your point. The committee needs additional information.”
Miller also questioned Gibson’s request for 10,000 additional medical staffers, given that the VA has admitted that it’s so screwed up, it can’t really determine its own staffing needs.
“VA’s determination that 10,000 additional medical staff is needed is also surprising when in the secretary’s written statement it states that VA doesn’t ‘have the refined capacity to accurately quantify its staffing requirements,’ ” Miller said. “If they don’t have the ability to accurately predict staffing needs then how do we know that 10,000 more bodies is what is needed?”
Miller reiterated his point that instead of just throwing money at the VA, the VA needs to be radically reformed. Miller said that so far, he’s seen little evidence that this has happened, particularly when it comes to punishing officials involved in the health care scandal.
“Upon stepping up as acting secretary, you have stated that there must be change and accountability, but I still have yet to see where the department has drawn the line and brought bad actors to justice,” Miller said.
“Real change needs to be made in the management at the Department to refocus on the core mission and in the priorities of the VA,” he added. “VA can no longer consider itself a sacred cow that is not subject to the rules of good government and ethical behavior. Veterans are sacred. VA is not.”
Miller’s committee has also held hearings on efforts by VA executives to retaliate against employees who blow the whistle on corrupt practices. But despite revealing this retaliation, Miller said the VA is still not working with Congress to fix this problem.
In one example, Miller noted that Javier Soto was a whistleblower who was fired from the VA, and who testified before the committee on July 14.
After the hearing, Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.) tried to find out more about Soto’s termination, but so far, the VA has not been helpful.
“Instead of being open and honest about the process about Mr. Soto’s removal, VA has equivocated, stonewalled, changed its story, and obstructed members of this committee in what appears to be an attempt to cover up VA’s retaliation against Mr. Soto,” Miller said.
Miller said he’s prepared to subpoena the VA for the information committee members are seeking with regard to Soto and other VA employees if the VA doesn’t provide it.
House and Senate negotiators are still working to agree on a final VA reform bill that looks to make it easier to fire VA officials involved in the scandal, and ensure that the thousands of veterans still waiting for health care can receive it. At Thursday’s hearing, a VA official testified that 40,000 veterans are still on a wait list for care.