Chairman Roe Opening Statement: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2019
Today, the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, chaired by Rep. Phil Roe, M.D. (R-Tenn.), held an oversight hearing to review the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs budget request for Fiscal Year 2019
Good morning and thank you all for being here today to discuss the President’s fiscal year 2019 budget submission for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
This fiscal year’s budget request totals $198.6 billion in VA funding – an increase of nearly $12 billion over last fiscal year.
That’s a huge number, but it’s even more striking when you compare the growth in VA’s budget to overall federal spending and the economy. There is a graph in VA’s budget presentation that illustrates this point. Since 2006, the VA budget is up 175%, while overall federal spending increased 54%, and GDP grew by only 40%.
Given the aggressive expansion of VA resources, I appreciate that the Secretary’s testimony emphasizes the department’s core objectives and the specific foundational services that support those objectives. The department must stay focused on their core mission to ensure resources are appropriately utilized and veterans’ care and benefits prioritized.
VA will take action on many important items in Fiscal Year 2019. Some examples include implementation of the Forever GI Bill and appeals modernization, and the start of what will undoubtedly be a costly and lengthy replacement of VA’s electronic health record – to name a few.
Because we could not possibly cover these important issues at length in today’s hearing, in the coming weeks, our subcommittees will hold hearings on specific aspects of the budget proposal within their jurisdictions.
Today, we will discuss VA’s proposed budget to help ensure the department provides better quality and more timely services to our nation’s veterans.
One priority we share with Secretary Shulkin, VSOs, and our Senate counterparts is consolidating and improving VA community care. This committee has heard from veterans, VA employees, and industry leaders about the many obstacles that prevent VA from effectively partnering with community providers to augment in-house health care services. Consolidating community care into one cohesive program that truly serves veterans is a key investment for the future that will make every dollar spent go further.
Another important priority is the establishment of a VA asset and infrastructure review process to help the department repurpose or dispose of underutilized buildings, allowing dollars to be spent where they make the most impact. As we have discussed many times, modernizing VA’s physical infrastructure is a crucial prerequisite to ensuring the future success of the VA health care system, and I was pleased to see President Trump’s infrastructure plan specifically mentioned VA assets.
VA is one of the federal government’s largest property-holding entities. However, the department’s capital asset portfolio is challenging. The average VHA building is approaching 60 years old and was designed to meet an older inpatient model of care. Out of over 150 million total square feet of real estate, nearly 6 million are completely vacant, and many more are underused. We need a methodical and data-driven review to determine how to adapt this physical footprint to meet the needs of the future.
Last, but certainly not least, is the implementation of a modern, commercial electronic health record. While the EHR modernization effort is necessary, it is very expensive. The contract with Cerner alone has a price tag of about $10 billion and that doesn’t even include the costs of updating infrastructure to accommodate the new EHR, implementation support, or sustaining VistA up until the day it can be turned off.
We also have yet to resolve the question of the new EHR’s interoperability capabilities. It is unthinkable that VA could potentially spend billions of dollars on a project that that doesn’t substantially increase the Department’s ability to share information with DOD or community providers. Yet, that’s exactly what could happen if VA fails to proceed in a careful, deliberate manner.
Therefore, I was relieved when Secretary Shulkin paused the award process to conduct an assessment of community provider interoperability, and I look forward to discussing any updates he can provide us with on that process today.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has a sacred mission to serve those who have served our country. To date, VA has been entrusted with significant resources, outpacing those of nearly every other agency, to carry out that mission. But with substantial resources comes substantial responsibility to expend dollars wisely.
On that note, before I yield to Ranking Member Walz, I’d like to address the report released by the Inspector General yesterday regarding Secretary Shulkin’s trip to Europe last year. Mr. Secretary, like many members on this dais, I was disappointed in the allegations raised by this report. I, alongside Ranking Member Walz and Senators Isakson and Tester, was briefed on this yesterday, and I’ve instructed my staff to request additional documentation from the IG.
I’ve gotten to know you well over the last year, and I believe your intentions to serve and care for our nation’s veterans are clear. With that said, as public officials, we are all expected to be held to a higher standard and be good stewards of tax dollars. I encourage you to take every step to address the findings of this report, and to make any changes necessary. We’ve got a lot of work to do on behalf of our nation’s veterans, and we cannot allow distractions like these to keep us from doing that work. I look forward to seeing your response.
To the members here today: I encourage you to remember the importance of the topic at hand. While I understand many of you will rightfully want to ask the Secretary about the IG’s findings, I ask that you also keep in mind we’re reviewing a budget request of nearly $200 billion dollars and that should be the focus of our discussion today. We have a responsibility to taxpayers to thoroughly review that proposal as well.
Today, the Secretary will testify that this is not a “‘business as usual’ VA budget.” I look forward to discussing exactly how this fiscal year’s budget request will support a transformation to a more modern, efficient, and effective VA.
I am sure we all have many questions to ask today, and we are all eager to receive the Secretary’s testimony, so I will leave it at that for now.