AUSTIN, Texas — A $1 billion deficit in the Department of Veterans Affairs’ $18,000 budget is raising eyebrows, as the agency’s leadership and leaders in Congress are asking why it is not being fixed.
VA Secretary David Shulkin announced last week that he is eliminating about 1,000 positions, including roughly 4,000 in the administrative functions that support the VA medical system.
Shulkin has not explained why the cuts were made, but they have raised questions among veterans advocates, who said the cuts would have a ripple effect across the VA.
“This is an opportunity to really put some teeth into the problem,” said David L. Haines, executive director of the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan research group that has advocated for a fix to the VA crisis.
VA chief of staff, David Shultz, has defended the cuts as necessary to save money and keep the VA on track to meet its funding needs.
But veterans advocates say the VA is already struggling with long waits for care, lack of funding for new medical equipment and other issues that could hamper VA efforts to deliver timely care.
The cuts are a major blow to the agency that provides care to more than 70 million veterans nationwide, but advocates say it is likely to continue to hurt veterans until the VA can figure out how to fix the problems, including how to improve how it tracks the numbers of veterans who seek care.
The VA’s leadership is under pressure to act as quickly as possible to fix what they have called an “irreparable and systemic” problem.
The VA’s financial problems have grown more severe as veterans have been waiting for care at facilities across the country.
Last year, it received about $4.9 billion in emergency funding to pay for care for veterans with chronic conditions.
That amount had fallen to about $3.7 billion this year, according to a VA press release last week.
While the cuts will affect some veterans, they have the potential to impact others, as well, because they would be a blow to VA’s ability to fund new medical facilities, said Michael P. Kelly, the VA chief financial officer for the Department the Justice Department’s inspector general.
Kelly said the department could use its existing emergency funding or the supplemental emergency funds it receives to cover additional costs to help the VA meet its goal of meeting its funding obligations.
Veterans advocates say that would mean the VA could still meet its payments to the Veterans Health Administration, which provides medical care to millions of veterans, even though the VA has no plans to start filling those positions.
Some veterans advocates also argue that if VA doesn’t fix the problem, it could lose federal support that it has received over the past five years from Congress and the private sector.
“Vietnam veterans have asked Congress for this money for years, and Congress has not listened,” Kelly said.
Congress, for example, is set to vote on a $5 billion extension of the Veterans Choice Program, which offers VA patients who are not covered by Medicare the choice to enroll in private health insurance plans.
Kelly said that if the VA doesn-t act quickly, the agency will be left with a “toxic” situation, which could make it harder for the agency to provide timely care to veterans.
In the past, the department has been able to meet some of its budget needs with a combination of federal funds, which can be used to pay providers, and state and local funding, which comes from local governments and other sources.
But with the VA in financial crisis, Kelly said, the federal government will have to take a more aggressive approach.
“This doesn’t mean we are going to lose the money,” Kelly told Fox News.
He said the agency could rely on state and private funds to pay doctors and other staff members and that the VA will also need more resources to keep up with growing demand for care.
The cuts were announced by Shulkins and Shultz last week, just weeks before the VA voted to approve the first phase of a $7.2 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that began July 1.
The first phase, called the Veterans Benefits and Care Improvement Act, is intended to fix problems with the Veterans Affairs Health Care System and other health care systems in the country, but is expected to face additional challenges in implementing the reforms.
The bill also includes new provisions aimed at improving access to care and ensuring veterans are properly compensated for their time in the military.