Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald said Tuesday that he wants to pay for a $1.4 billion construction cost overrun by taking about $1 billion out of a fund that was designed to pay for veterans to get care outside the broken VA system.
Congress has been harshly critical of the VA's botched project in Denver, where the VA has been trying to build a hospital complex for veterans. The original estimate for the complex was $328 million, but the VA has since said it will really cost $1.7 billion.
On Tuesday, McDonald said he wants to fund the rest of the project by dipping into the Veterans Choice Act, a bill passed last year that provides about $5 billion in funding to let veterans find medical in non-VA facilities.
"We believe requesting funds from the Choice Act is the best approach among the difficult choices before us," he told a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee. McDonald later admitted, however, that the VA has no idea how much of the Veterans Choice money it will actually need.
The Obama administration has tried to gut the new program before. In February, the White House's budget plan for 2016 suggested paring back the program in order to save money, just months after it was created.
But Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who chairs the subcommittee, said that idea was a non-starter.
"The promise we've already made to America's veterans, we don't want to welch on that promise because of the mismanagement of the Denver facility," he said. Kirk added that McDonald's idea would take about 20 percent of the Veterans Choice Act money.
"That's an awful big hit," he said.
The two then sparred over how to handle the issue. Kirk said the best idea would be to quickly fire anyone involved in the Denver debacle. McDonald said the top construction official at VA, Glenn Haggstrom, is "no longer with us."
"By 'no longer with us,' [you] meant you let him quietly retire," Kirk interjected. "He's still collecting from the taxpayer."
Kirk is correct — Haggstrom was allowed to retire, which drew more anger from Congress last month. Kirk added that Haggstrom was even given a $60,000 bonus over the last few years, despite the botched Denver project that will cost taxpayers than $1 billion more.
"It is impossible to claw back a retirement unless malfeasance is proven, and the investigation is ongoing," McDonald replied.
Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) has another idea for paying for the Denver hospital complex fiasco — stop paying bonuses to VA workers.
Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson has said this is a "lousy idea." But last week, Coffman said it's worse to keep giving bonuses to inept officials.
"The only lousy idea I’ve heard is allowing the VA to continue paying bonuses to bureaucrats who have overseen secret waiting lists, billions of dollars in construction cost overruns, and other travesties that have seriously endangered our nation’s veterans.