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Witness Testimony of Mr. Robert D. Snyder, Acting Assistant Secretary for the Office of Policy and Planning U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Chairman Miller, Ranking Member Michaud, and Distinguished Members of the Committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to present our views on three proposed bills in the area of Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) budgeting and strategic planning.  Accompanying me are Helen Tierney, Executive in Charge for the Office of Management and Chief Financial Officer, Department of Veterans Affairs and Duane C. Flemming, PMP, Director, Policy Analysis and Forecasting, Veterans Health Administration.

The first bill, H.R. 813 would include all VA discretionary accounts in the advanced appropriation process established in 2009 by Public Law 111-81, the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act.  The second bill, H.R. 806 would make permanent special GAO budget review provisions established in that law on a temporary basis.  The third bill, in the form of a draft, has numerous provisions regarding requirements for supplemental budget submissions and a “Future-Years Veterans Program” report, a quadrennial review, reviews of VA’s organizational structure, as well as prescribing elements for VA’s strategic planning.

On October 22, 2009, President Obama signed into law the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act (Public Law 111-81) into law.  This law allows Veterans’ medical care to be funded a year in advance, and it means that VA is able to receive timely, sufficient, and predictable medical care funding from year to year.  For our Veterans, this means better access to the medical care we provide at our 151 hospitals, 827 community-based outpatient clinics, 300 Vet Centers and 81 mobile outpatient clinics and mobile Vet Centers.  Advance appropriations support the vital healthcare services that VA delivers to more than six million unique Veteran patients each year.  

H.R. 813

The proposed bill, “Putting Veterans Funding First Act of 2013,’’ would extend the authority for advance appropriations provided in the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act to all of VA’s discretionary accounts, effective in 2016 and in each fiscal year thereafter.  We appreciate how Congressional support for VA advance appropriations for our medical care accounts has enabled a multi-year approach to medical budget planning and ensured continued medical services for Veterans.  The advance medical care appropriation was designed to ensure continuity of critical medical operations in the face of fiscal uncertainty.  
 
A proposal to expand VA advance appropriations needs to be considered by the Administration as part of an across-the-government review of the advantages and disadvantages of such an approach not only for VA, but potentially other programs and agencies.  Only in the context of such a broad review could the Administration offer an opinion on making such a change for the VA.  We cannot therefore offer a position on H.R. 813 at this time.  We very much appreciate the concern for Veterans services reflected in the proposal, and look forward to working with the Committee on how to best maintain the provision of VA benefits and services in light of fiscal uncertainties.

H.R. 806

The bill would establish a permanent requirement for an annual report by the Comptroller General on the Department of Veterans Affairs medical budget submissions.  The bill would require the report be submitted to the Committees on Veterans Affairs, Budget, and Appropriations and the VA Secretary no later than 120 days after the date on which the President submits a budget request.  Congress in the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act established the requirement beginning in fiscal year 2011, but on a temporary basis only through fiscal year 2013.  

VA does not support making these reports permanent.  VA has expanded the information presented in the justification volumes each year in order to be more transparent in the budget request and to include additional information that has been requested by Congress.  VA believes this information, supplemented by the continuing and ongoing oversight of VA by Congress, as well as engagement by the General Accountability Office as charged by Congress, provides ample review of, and transparency for, VA’s budget process.

A draft bill entitled the “Department of Veterans Affairs
Budget Planning Reform Act

In general, VA believes the draft bill has a great deal in common with VA’s ongoing and planned strategic planning, programming, and evaluation initiatives.  We are excited about this work to make sure VA’s planning and Department-level resource allocation processes are systematic and look beyond the horizon so that our Nation’s Veterans can be accorded the best benefits, services, and support VA can offer.  We therefore greatly appreciate the concepts put forward in the bill.  We are eager to discuss those efforts with the Committee, but we are hesitant to lock down these concepts in statute.

Recently, VA began a Planning, Programming, Budget and Execution (PPBE) initiative modeled after similar efforts used in other Federal agencies such as the Department of Defense, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, and others.  VA believes PPBE has potential to more systematically improve VA’s ability to anticipate and strategically prepare for the future needs of Veterans and their families.  We also believe this effort can better meet the needs of the VA workforce and buttress their dedication to serve Veterans, as well as improve resource allocation and enable VA to get the best value for scarce resources.  The PPBE cycle implements a multi-year analytical framework beginning with fiscal year 2015 to ensure the requirements of VA’s healthcare delivery, benefits, and memorial services are fully vetted.  

There are many elements of the draft legislation that reflect these PPBE principles, and the direction VA is going in its strategic planning and programming efforts.

Section two of the bill would require VA to submit annually at or about the time of its regular budget submission a “Future Years Veterans Program” that would include for the next five years (including the budget year submitted) estimated expenditures and proposed appropriations, as well as a VA five-year strategy regarding the Department’s commitment to Veterans and the resources to meet those commitments.

Section two would also mandate a Quadrennial Veterans Review (QVR), with the first such review conducted in fiscal year 2017.  The bill sets forth detailed requirements and elements for the conduct of this review, and ties it to a ‘national strategy for meeting the Nation’s commitment to Veterans’ with a component regarding VA’s cooperation with other Federal agencies, and State, local, and tribal governments.

Consistent with these concepts, the Department has embarked on its own Quadrennial Strategic Planning Process (QSPP), which we believe is consistent with the aims of the draft bill to institute a more formalized strategic planning process to inform and drive the five-year programming process and the near-term budgeting process.  The final results of our QSPP, a new VA strategic plan for the fiscal year 2014-2020 timeframe, will be published no later than the President’s budget submission in February 2014.  We have already had productive briefings on the development of that plan with your staff and will continue that dialogue as we progress in finalizing the plan.

VA’s QSPP includes an environmental scanning and analysis phase, and has some of the same general goals as the Department of Defense’s (DoD) Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR).  VA is concerned about expectations that the bill’s QVR should be as extensive and detailed as DoD’s QDR.  VA believes an attempt to replicate the QDR is not appropriate for the Department and would have serious staffing and resource implications.

VA has been working towards building a multi-year programming capability and established the Office of Corporate Analysis and Evaluation (CAE) within the Office of Policy and Planning to lead that effort.  The Secretary signed the first Future Years Veterans Plan, covering fiscal years 2015-2019, on April 30, 2013 to document the results of our first true programming effort.  This effort has in common the same concepts as the legislation in providing an additional tool for VA to provide a more strategic longer-term view to ensure that capabilities are well-defined and balanced with VA’s resource requests.

While we believe the general intent of section two will be met with the emerging PPBE process within VA, we do have significant reservations about any mandate to publish specific dollar and FTE projections beyond the budget year.  The strategic planning and programming processes are tools used to align vision and resources to capabilities, programs, and activities, to be distinguished from VA’s budget formulation process.  A requirement to publish the programming-generated expenditure and appropriation figures along with VA’s budget, as required by the bill, could create confusion between those two functions.  That in turn could limit flexibility in developing and executing the Department’s budget to meet emergent requirements and opportunities.

As noted above, the QVR would require a broader role for VA in developing a National Veterans Strategy that identifies and prioritizes the full range of programs, services, benefits and outcomes regarding Veterans provided by the federal government.  VA believes that its ongoing development and work in “futures” analysis and planning have common aims with this aspect of the QVR proposal, and will be glad to discuss this with the Committee, although a National Veterans Strategy would require broad analysis and policy development that would go well beyond just the VA.
     
Section two of the bill also requires the Secretary to provide annual “written policy guidance for the preparation and review of the planning and program recommendations and budget proposals of the elements of the Department.”  It is current practice for the Secretary or Deputy Secretary to issue such guidance as necessary elements of implementing the Department’s planning, programming, and budgeting processes.  Therefore, VA believes this provision is unnecessary.  

Section three of the draft bill would designate the Assistant Secretary whose functions include planning, studies and evaluations as the Chief Strategy Officer of VA.  The draft bill goes on to provide in significant detail the responsibilities of the Chief Strategy Officer.  VA strongly supports the direction set out in this section, as those areas delineated in the bill are being performed by the Assistant Secretary for Policy and Planning.  However, VA is reluctant to codify those responsibilities in legislation, so that those responsibilities can be adjusted as required in the future.  VA would like to brief the Committees on the work of the Office of Policy and Planning as it relates to the concepts set out in section three.

Section four of the draft bill would require VA to conduct a study of the functions and organizational structure of the Office of the Secretary as well as the entire Department. It also would require VA to engage a contractor to perform a separate parallel review of those same topics.  VA in its day-to-day management continually assesses the effectiveness and the efficiency of its organizational structures in serving Veterans and in being good stewards of taxpayer resources.  VA recognizes there is always more to do, but believes our existing planning processes are adequate to consider beneficial organizational changes.  Additionally, the reviews of the General Accountability Office and VA’s Office of Inspector General provide outside review and counsel that is always seriously considered by VA.    

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on these three important bills, and we appreciate the Committee’s attention the critical topics of VA budgeting and strategic planning.  They are integral to our drive to continue improving the health care, compensation benefits, memorial honors, and other support and services we provide to the Nation’s Veterans.