Lawmakers blasted the Department of Veterans Affairs Wednesday for threatening to shutter its hospitals and clinics next month in the face of a sudden budget shortfall, after giving Congress just a few weeks' notice.
VA Secretary Robert McDonald used Wednesday's House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing for the authority to shift funds from a VA choice program, which allows veterans to receive care from non-VA facilities, in order to cover the $2.5 billion holes in the agency's budget.
Without legislation that allows the VA secretary to move taxpayer funds from line item to line item, McDonald argued during the hearing, the VA will begin "an orderly shutdown of hospitals and clinics" in August.
"My worst nightmare is a veteran going without care because I have the money in the wrong pocket," McDonald said.
But members of the committee questioned why they were notified of the VA's financial crisis just weeks before agency officials say the VA will have no other option but to close hospitals. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., called the budget deficit the "most massive shortfall in VA history," and the chairman of the committee said the VA needs to do a better job keeping Congress informed.
"You knew that there was a shortfall coming," Chairman Jeff Miller told McDonald. "But you thought it was a critical that you take $150 million to give to Denver."
The Florida Republican was referring to a disastrous VA construction project in Denver that has run more than $1 billion over budget.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress have resisted the VA's requests to take money from the choice program to cover costs elsewhere. The choice program was created last year after it became clear that the VA was failing to get care to veterans quickly enough in its own system.
Miller slammed President Obama earlier this month for his lack of attention to the growing management problems at the VA.
The anger at the VA is coming not just from Republicans, but from Democrats as well. Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., said at the hearing that she felt as though the committee was experiencing "Groundhog Day" by entertaining yet another plea for more funding from a top VA official.
Rice decried the "complete and utter lack of accountability" at the VA, noting few employees had lost their jobs over substantiated allegations that the agency had falsified patient waiting lists to cover up long delays.
"What I think is disgraceful is for you to insinuate that, by not giving money, no one on the committee cares about veterans," she said.
McDonald said the suggestion that the VA is resisting the choice program "absolutely, positively wrong."