The Veterans Affairs Department may get a big budget boost in fiscal 2018 under the president’s proposal. Most of the additional funding will go toward health care, both in and outside the department. But the budget proposal does suggest cuts, and lawmakers said they’re concerned by possible spending reductions to VA information technology and medical research.
Some members of Congress are encouraged by a new solution to overhaul the outdated and lengthy appeals process for veterans. Members of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committee introduced new legislation Tuesday that would create three paths for veterans to move more quickly through the appeals process. VA has roughly 470,000 claims pending as of April 1.
The Veterans Affairs Department soft-launched a new online tool that lets veterans search for VA medical facilities and their average wait times within a specific mile radius. VA said it’s a significant step in showing accountability and transparency efforts three years after wait time scandals in Phoenix shook up the agency’s leadership and organization.
Veterans Affairs Department employees are now answering 99.8 percent of veterans’ calls to the VA crisis hotline, and fewer than 1 percent of those calls are rolling over to backup centers. But the VA Inspector General and lawmakers still see some troubling challenges.
The Veterans Affairs Department, Congress and Government Accountability Office all agree: an outdated and inflexible hiring process and serious shortcomings with the department’s human resources functions are prohibiting the agency from quickly filling at least 45,000 open health care positions.
A new bill that would limit how much time doctors, nurses and other employees at the Veterans Affairs Department could spend on union business has support now from VA itself. The department said having its employees spend 100 percent of their hours on official time is “necessary, reasonable and in the public’s best interest.”
Official time has been a hot topic for House lawmakers this week. A new bill would limit official time for all employees at the Veterans Affairs Department and would set special limits for doctors and other workers involved in direct patient care.
Since Michael Missal took over as inspector general at the Veterans Affairs Department about a year ago, his office has turned up some improvements, some deteriorations and the odd surprise.
If the 114th Congress was about dissecting the Veterans Affairs Department’s challenges, then the 115th Congress will act quickly to solve them, leadership on the House Veterans Affairs Committee said.
Some advocates of the House Veterans Affairs Committee’s new employee accountability bill say it’s different enough from previous attempts to tackle this issue and should assuage past concerns. But others fear the legislation revives familiar worries.
An extension and then redesign of the Veterans Choice Program, along with new employee accountability legislation, are top priorities for new Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin. He said he’s working with Congress on new legislation to support those initiatives.
The Veterans Benefits Administration sees progress with the National Work Queue, the automatic workload system that assigns a veteran’s claim to the regional office that has the most capacity to immediately begin work. But Congress is concerned the NW Queue creates unnecessary confusion and can’t address the growing backlog of veterans claims.
A recent Government Accountability Office report on the Veterans Affairs Department and its employees’ use of official time is renewing a debate among lawmakers: Does official time have a place within agency operations, and how much time is too much?
The Government Accountability Office had some hard truths for the Veterans Affairs Department, which has failed to produce more modern, interoperable IT systems after years of failed pilots and heated congressional hearings. GAO says VA should drop its plans to modernize VistA and find a commercial option instead.
Veterans service organizations and the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents roughly 230,000 employees at the Veterans Affairs Department, say the President-elect’s nominee to lead the agency is a pleasant surprise. Dr. David Shulkin, the current VA undersecretary for health, should give the agency some continuity during the transition, they said.