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Witness Testimony of The Honorable Dr. Robert A. Petzel, M.D., Under Secretary for Health Veterans, Health Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Good morning, Chairman Miller, Ranking Member Michaud, and Members of the Committee.  Thank you for the opportunity to discuss the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Major Medical Facility and Lease Program that supports VA’s mission to provide quality and accessible health care for Veterans.  I am accompanied today by Mr. Phillip Matkovsky, Assistant Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Administrative Operations; and Mr. Jim Sullivan, Director, Office of Asset Enterprise Management.

 

In my testimony, I will discuss the Veterans Health Administration’s (VHA) model of health care delivery to ensure Veteran-centric care.  This model is an integrated approach that includes direct care in VHA owned and leased facilities, non-VA care, and collaborations with the Department of Defense (DoD).  I will also discuss the central role that capital planning has played and will continue to play in delivering the best care possible for Veterans, with the fullest access to care possible.  Finally, I will address the current challenges we all acknowledge in balancing resources with needs, along with our recent challenge on major medical leases. 

 

I. DELIVERING CARE TO VETERANS

 

At VA, we must anticipate and meet the needs of current and newly returning Veterans.  We have many entry points for VHA health care:  152 medical centers, 821 community-based outpatient clinics (CBOC), 300 Vet Centers and 70 mobile Vet Centers that provide readjustment counseling, the Veterans Crisis Line, college and university campuses and other outreach efforts.  In response to increased demand, VA has enhanced its capacity to deliver needed health services and to improve its system of care, so that Veterans can more readily access services.  We acknowledge the disconnect between available capital resources and the number of facility replacement and modernization projects identified in our Long Range Capital Plan.  However, our greatest immediate concern is how applying “capital lease” budgetary scoring to all proposed VA major medical facility leases threatens to potentially disrupt our ability to deploy state-of-the-art medical care for Veterans.  Though VA is faced with ongoing challenges, we want the Committee and all Veterans to understand we are committed to ensuring our Veterans receive the quality health care they have earned by serving their country.

 

VHA has been transforming its health care delivery system for two decades, moving from an inpatient, hospital-based system to an outpatient, ambulatory care model.  By doing so, VA has brought our commitment to serving timely and efficient health care services significantly closer to Veterans.  The ability of Veterans to access health care at the right time and at the right place is at the heart of keeping our promise to America’s Veterans.  VA’s capital and leasing programs are one tool by which VA has achieved this transformation. 

 

VA provides health care to Veterans in facilities that are constructed and owned, and leased by VHA.  Leased facilities, for example CBOCs, are located in Veterans’ communities, allowing VA to meet access and capacity goals in locales across the country, including rural settings. 

 

VA also provides health care to Veterans indirectly, through individual authorizations or through contracts with community health care providers, under the Non-VA Medical Care Program.  Delivering health care services through the Non-VA Medical Care Program may be used when specific services cannot be provided in a VA-owned or leased facility in a timely manner, or because such VA services are not available.  This option is limited to the general availability of those services in the community. 

This mix of in-house and external care provides Veterans a full continuum of health care services, covered under our medical benefits package, when and where it is needed.   

 

II. CAPITAL INVESTMENT  
        

The goal of VA’s capital asset and leasing programs is to ensure that there are safe, secure, and state-of-the-art facilities to provide benefits and services to our Nation’s Veterans.  VA owns and leases real property in hundreds of communities across the U.S. and overseas.  Currently, VA owns and leases more than 170 million square feet in 7,786 buildings.

 

            VA strives to maintain the optimal mix of investments needed to achieve strategic goals and ensure a high level of performance for our assets, while minimizing risk and maximizing cost effectiveness.  VA has developed and continues to look for sound capital asset management strategies, to assist in maximizing the value of its portfolio, by disposing of or reusing underutilized properties.

 

            VA has continued to innovate its capital asset management planning, including the development of a highly structured, data-driven methodology, by which to assess proposed major construction projects.  Beginning with the fiscal year (FY) 2012 budget formulation process, VA introduced the Strategic Capital Investment Process (SCIP), to prioritize all capital investments across the Department based on identified mission needs.  The SCIP process is a requirement-based planning tool, which informs the Department’s resource allocation process, to address the most critical needs first.

 

SCIP involves a systematic evaluation and prioritization of all proposed capital investments, based upon identified performance gaps (e.g., safety, security, workload-driven capacity shortage, right-sizing).  These gaps reflect where enhancement of  current infrastructure or services is necessary to meet strategic goals for access and timeliness based on current and future Veteran demographic projections, or when VA may have underutilized or excess capacity.  Only those capital investment projects that have scored well in addressing identified performance gaps are proposed for funding in VA’s budget.  As a result of the SCIP process, VA has a total picture of all possible capital investments that would support Departmental goals, as well as a prioritized integrated list of capital investments.

           

All projects are considered in light of VA’s aging infrastructure.  On average, VA-owned assets are more than 60 years old.  The SCIP process directly addresses the challenges posed by an aging infrastructure with a range of solutions, including reuse or repurposing of underutilized assets. 

 

             In light of the fiscal outlook for our Nation, and what has always been our duty to be good stewards on behalf of taxpayers, we must more carefully than ever consider VA’s footprint and our real property portfolio.  Innovative approaches to deliver services to Veterans and better manage our portfolio are welcomed.  The Department supports the Administration’s proposed Civilian Property Realignment Act (CPRA), to add to VA’s “tool-kit” for reducing unneeded assets.  If enacted by Congress, this process would give VA more flexibility to dispose of unneeded property, and improve the management of its inventory.

 

In addition to CPRA, the Department proposed legislation that would authorize VA to plan, design, construct, or lease joint VA/Federal use medical facilities, and amend VA’s Enhanced-Use Lease (EUL) statute.  The proposed legislation would further VA’s ability to collaborate with other Federal agencies, and would authorize VA to plan, design, construct, or lease joint VA/Federal use medical facilities.  And relative to accomplishing such joint projects, the proposed legislation would allow the transfer of funds between Federal agencies -- for use in the planning, design, and/or construction of joint medical facilities. 

 

The current version of VA’s EUL authority precludes the Department’s ability to enter into a wide range of agreements that could benefit Veterans and help address VA’s physical infrastructure needs.  VA’s proposed amendments to its EUL authority would enable leasing of its unneeded and vacant properties for purposes beyond the development and operation of “supportive housing,” as defined in 38 U.S.C. § 8161(3) of the United States Code. 

 

The Administration’s CPRA proposal, in combination with granting VA broader EUL authority, will help VA continue to reduce operations and maintenance costs for its most challenging assets, and would offer alternative approaches to manage VA’s real property portfolio.

 

III. MEDICAL LEASES

 

In addition to construction, the leasing of medical facilities is essential to providing Veterans with access to health care services.  Leasing provides VA the flexibility to serve our Nation’s Veterans, with both the space and services located closer and more conveniently to where Veterans live.  It also allows VA to respond to demographic shifts, changing service demands, and technological improvements to support projected outpatient workload increases.  Finally, leasing enables VA to vacate clinical space if doing so is prudent in order to continue to provide state-of-the-art healthcare in safer, more modern facilities.  Since 2008, VA has opened 180 leased medical facilities, 50 of which required Congressional authorization as “major facilities”, due to anticipated annual rent payments exceeding one million dollars.  VA currently leases approximately 21.5 million square feet in support of its health care system.

 

As you are aware, the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) technical cost analysis scored VA’s proposed 2013 and 2014 major medical facility lease authorizations as “capital leases,” requiring the Department to budget upfront for the full cost of the lease,.  This  score precludes VA from procuring all of the requested 27 major medical facility leases serving more than 340,000 Veterans in 20 States.  The Department is very concerned about the potential negative effects on Veterans utilizing VA health care.  If the Department is unable to pursue these planned projects, six existing clinics may have to close, 14 will have constrained services to already over-populated facilities, and long-planned expansions to address Veterans’ health care needs will not move forward.  Increased travel and wait times are likely to occur for Veterans, especially those located in rural areas, where access to care is limited. 

 

Mr. Chairman, we appreciate your continued work to resolve this situation.  Please be assured you have a partner in VA, to make all efforts to minimize or avoid disrupting or degrading Veterans’ access to health care.

 

 

V. FEDERAL AND LOCAL COLLABORATIONS

 

            In fulfilling VA’s model of quality and available care, we strive to coordinate with community providers to address gaps, and create an improved patient-centric network of care focused on wellness-based outcomes.  Pursuant to President Obama’s Executive Order 13625, “Improve Access to Mental Health Services for Veterans, Service Members, and Military Families,” VA is working closely with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to establish pilot projects with community-based providers.  These providers include community mental health clinics, community health centers, substance abuse treatment facilities, and rural health clinics.  The effectiveness of community-based providers in helping to meet the mental health needs of Veterans in a timely way is being evaluated.  Both the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) of HHS, provided contacts for potential community partners.  Pilot projects are varied and may include provisions for inpatient, residential, and outpatient mental health and substance abuse services.  Some sites include capabilities for telemental health, staff sharing, and space utilization arrangements, to enable VA providers to provide services directly in communities that are distant from a VA facility.  The pilot project sites were established based upon community providers’ available capacities, and wait times, community treatment methodologies available, Veteran acceptance of external care, location of care with respect to the Veteran population, and mental health needs in specific areas.

           

            In addition, VA collaborates with HHS-funded Federally Qualified Health Centers and community mental health clinics across the country.  These community partnerships were developed locally as a means to provide mental health services to Veterans in areas where direct access to VA health care is limited by geography or workload. 

 

The VA has partnered with HHS’s Administration for Community Living to develop a Veteran Directed Home and Community-Based services program.  The program is available through 45 VAMC’s that partner with 99 Aging and Disability Resource Centers (ADRC)/area agencies on aging/centers for independent living in 24 states and the District of Columbia.  Veterans enrolled in the program receive a flexible service budget that they use to purchase the home and community-based services they need to thrive in the community.  In collaboration with an ADRC options counselor, the Veteran develops a person-centered plan that includes the services they need at the times they need them.  The Veteran hires and directs the staff that provides the services and with the support of a fiscal management services organization pays their staff for services rendered.  The options counselor and the fiscal management services organization are part of the No-Wrong-Door Aging and Disability Resource Center (NWD/ADRC) that the VHA, Administration for Community Living and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services are working together with eight states to develop.  The eight states are Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin. The NWD/ADRC will provide person-centered streamlined access to long-term services and supports for all populations that are at greatest risk of institutionalization and/or spend down to Medicaid.

 

VI. VA/DOD COLLABORATION

 

VA continues to look for ways to enhance our existing collaborative relationship with DoD and other Federal agencies.  VA and DoD established the Construction Planning Committee (CPC), which reports directly to VA/DoD Joint Executive Committee (JEC), to improve VA’s existing collaborative relationship with DoD and other Federal agencies, particularly for joint capital asset planning.  CPC developed a common approach for capital asset planning, to identify and share data information between the Departments at the field level for population, workload, purchased care, access, and space, to aid in identifying potential collaborative opportunities.

 

VA will continue to assist DoD in identifying opportunities and coordinating the needs and requirements of both Departments and other Federal agencies, in order to increase collaborative capital initiatives.  As mentioned earlier in the testimony, the FY 2014 budget request includes legislation that would further enable VA and DoD to share medical facilities, in order to better serve Servicemembers, Veterans, and taxpayers.  The proposal would allow VA to transfer and/or receive funds (major and minor construction) to/from another Federal agency, for use in the planning, design, and/or construction of joint medical facilities.

 

VA/DoD partnerships deliver benefits and services to Veterans, Servicemembers, military retirees, and beneficiaries, through an enhanced VA and DoD partnership.  VA and DoD have direct sharing agreements between VA medical centers (VAMC)/Veterans Integrated Service Networks, and Military Treatment Facilities (MTF), for a range of services.  In FY 2012, there were 230 direct sharing agreements between 61 VAMCs and 105 DoD MTFs.  Of these facilities, 59 VAMCs provided health care services for DoD beneficiaries and 38 DoD medical facilities provided health care services for Veterans.  VA purchased from DoD $94.02 million for services rendered and DoD reimbursed VA $96.9 million for services delivered.

 

There are also several national Memorandums of Agreement (MOA) and Memorandums of Understanding between VA and DoD in place, which allows VA to further collaborate in providing care to Veterans and their families.

 

  • Polytrauma Rehabilitation Centers:  Spinal Cord Injury/Traumatic Brain Injury/Blind Rehabilitation for Active Duty Service Members
  • National TRICARE Pharmacy MOA
  • Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES) in concert with Disability Office
  • National MOA Active Duty Dental Program with United Concordia (where capacity permits)
  • MOA for Provision of Mental Health Providers to Army

 

VA and DoD have several Joint Ventures that enhance the cost-effective use of Federal healthcare resources, maximize the shared use of resources, and benefit both VA and DoD beneficiaries.  There are ten Joint Venture locations:

 

  • Charleston, SC (Naval Health Clinic (NH)/Joint Base Charleston/Naval Hospital and Beaufort/Charleston VAMC)           
  • Key West, FL (NH Jacksonville/ Miami VAHCS CBOC)
  • Gulf Coast FL (Keesler AFB & VA Gulf Coast HCS)      
  • El Paso, TX (Wm Beaumont AMC/ El Paso VAHCS)    
  • Las Vegas, NV (Nellis AFB/ VA Southern Nevada HCS)           
  • Fairfield, CA (David Grant Medical Ctr/ N. California VAHCS) 
  • Albuquerque, NM (Kirkland AFB/ New Mexico VAHCS)
  • Honolulu, HI (Tripler AMC/ VA Pacific Island HCS)         
  • Anchorage, AK (Elmendorf AFB/ Alaska VAHCS)
  • James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center (North Chicago)

 

VII. CONCLUSION

Mr. Chairman, we appreciate the opportunity to address these important subjects and continue pursuing solutions and ways ahead for our Nation’s Veterans.  VA must ensure Veterans and other eligible beneficiaries receive timely, accessible Veteran-centric high-quality health care.  We welcome discussion of that central priority, our comprehensive care model, and the topics I have discussed in my testimony; notably, VA’s capital planning process, VA’s collaborations with DoD and other Federal agencies, and community providers.  But if I may respectfully stress, if the major medical facility leasing issues are not expeditiously resolved, I fear it will have a significantly negative impact on VA’s health care services for Veterans.  We appreciate your support and encouragement in identifying and resolving challenges as we continue caring for Veterans.  VA is committed to providing the highest quality of care, which our Veterans have earned and deserve.  My colleagues and I are prepared to respond to any questions you may have.