Chairman Bost’s Opening Remarks at Oversight Hearing on VA COVID Spending
Washington, May 23, 2023 | Kathleen McCarthy
Today, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mike Bost (R-Ill.), delivered the following opening remarks, as prepared, at the start of today’s oversight hearing to review the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) spending of the COVID supplemental funding they were given by Congress during the public health emergency and whether or not it protected and improved veteran care throughout the pandemic:
The Committee will come to order.
Before we begin today’s oversight hearing, I want to welcome back Army Master Sergeant Matt Reel, the minority’s full committee Staff Director, back from a lengthy deployment overseas.
Thank you, Matt, for your continued service to our country and on behalf of the Committee, welcome home.
I also want to announce that Mr. Parker Chapman, the Staff Director of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, is leaving the Committee.
Parker has been a valued member of the Committee’s team for nearly 6 years.
He has worked for at least three different subcommittees, and I will miss his thoughtful and wise counsel.
Thank you for your years of service to veterans and their families, Parker.
We wish you all the best.
I want to welcome our witnesses to today’s hearing.
I will have to leave this hearing at some point to markup one of my bills in another Committee, and I apologize for having to step away.
I would like to start by, again, thanking V.A. staff for the incredible work they did during the pandemic.
Today, we are here to review how the Department of Veterans Affairs used the nearly $37 billion dollars Congress provided in supplemental funding during the pandemic.
Now that we are at the end of the pandemic emergency, it is time to look back at how well or poorly V.A. handled the money.
This funding spanned three bills.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act provided the first $60 million.
Then, the Cares Act provided $19.6 billion.
Finally, the American Rescue Plan Act provided another $17 billion.
While Families First was bipartisan and the Cares Act was nearly unanimous, A.R.P. was jammed through on party lines.
The rules placed on V.A. for spending these funds got looser and looser with each bill.
By the time we got to A.R.P. it looked a lot like a slush fund.
From the beginning, I was concerned that V.A. would struggle to account for the money and spend it correctly.
I wrote more than a few letters about it.
Ranking Member Takano and I also introduced the V.A. Transparency and Trust Act to require V.A. to report to Congress on how this money was being spent, which later became law.
We were right to be concerned.
The Inspector General released an audit on the Cares Act a few weeks ago.
We all know that V.A.’s outdated financial system barely functions under normal circumstances.
And the huge influx of COVID money only made things worse.
More often than not, the V.A. failed to document why they were transferring the dollars from one account to another.
But the problems cannot be blamed entirely on the old system.
Despite only looking at a small number of medical centers, O.I.G. estimated that V.A. failed to follow its own internal controls in over 10,000 supply purchases and service contracts.
Those transactions were worth $187 million dollars, and the Inspector General questioned the transactions for fraud and waste.
But the problems go well beyond this one report.
I requested more information on the categories that V.A. spent the COVID money on.
Some of them make sense, but it is hard to see how others relate to COVID.
I’m talking about things like:
and VISN directors’ offices.
V.A.’s regular budget should easily be paying for these things.
We have not seen an audit of the A.R.P. spending yet.
Congress put even fewer guardrails on the A.R.P. money than the Cares money, so that audit may be troubling.
Even though these funds were specifically for COVID, there was very little rhyme or reason for how V.A. spent the money.
One office used it a certain way, and the next office did it a different way.
Most of the money went toward regular operations or projects that would have happened anyway.
Practically no one could tell the difference between a COVID supplemental dollar and a regular dollar.
V.A. saw them just like this: two identical dollars that could be spent on whatever they wanted.
I am concerned that the V.A. is getting dependent on these one-time supplementals from Congress.
We need to provide for veterans’ care and benefits in the regular budget and oversee that money to ensure it serves veterans well.
That is exactly what Republicans on the Appropriations Committee did last week.
They advanced a bill that fully funds V.A. at exactly the level that President Biden requested.
The only difference is they put about $15 billion in V.A.’s regular healthcare accounts rather than putting everything in the Toxic Exposure Fund.
But the scare tactics from the other side of the aisle about a 22 percent cut have not stopped.
We kept our word, and the numbers do not lie.
Let’s look at it together.
Here are the requests and funding levels for the last three fiscal years.
Tell me, does that look like a cut to you?
Republicans are continuing to fully fund V.A. in addition to the billions of dollars of COVID money.
We have kept our word.
Now it’s time to put this partisan fearmongering to bed.
It is not helping anyone, and it is not what we were sent here to do.
Ranking Member Takano, I now recognize you for your opening statement.