Chairman Takano: “VA’s ability to deliver timely, high-quality care is directly tied to the quality and quantity of its capital assets.”
Jenni Geurink | (202-819-4684)
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano (CA-41) delivered opening remarks before the full Committee hearing entitled, “Investing in a Better VA: Examining the Role of Infrastructure in Veterans’ Access to Care and Benefits.” The Committee heard from VA officials, outside experts, and VSO leaders about the American Jobs Plan and how to build back all VA’s infrastructure – the physical buildings, human capital, and systems of support that serve our veterans.
Full video of the Chairman’s remarks
Chairman Takano’s remarks as prepared:
Today, I am pleased to hold this full Committee hearing entitled “Investing in a Better VA: Examining the Role of Infrastructure in Veterans’ Access to Care and Benefits.”
This hearing as an opportunity to not only discuss the Biden Administration’s $18 billion proposal to enhance VA’s physical infrastructure, but to also think outside the proverbial brick and mortar box and consider how human capital and systems of support all work together to make veterans’ access to care and services that much stronger.
This conversation is particularly timely for two distinct reasons. First, the Biden Administration is set to release its FY 22 budget request for VA tomorrow, which I hope the administration uses as an opportunity to address the chronic underfunding of VA’s capital asset portfolio that has persisted for decades.
And second, the President is about to nominate nine Commissioners to the Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) Commission which will make recommendations regarding the modernization or realignment of VHA facilities.
My Republican colleagues regularly argue VA’s budget has soared to new heights in recent years, noting both mandatory and discretionary outlays have nearly tripled during this time while the number of veterans using VA benefits and services have “increased only modestly.”
While these two points of view are factually accurate, they lack important context.
This view fails to take into account that veterans using the system are utilizing it for more of their care--not only because VA’s care is more culturally competent than care found in the private sector but because it is part of the pact this Nation makes with those who choose-- and those who were asked-- to wear the uniform.
However, when you look at the specific funding levels for construction at VA, the same cannot be said. In fact, from FY 2016 to FY 2021, the compound annual growth rate for major construction was negative 6.8%, while the minor construction program had a negative compounded growth rate of 1.66%, and Non-Recurring Maintenance had a negative compounded growth rate of 0.78%.
VA’s ability to deliver timely, high-quality care is directly tied to the quality and quantity of its capital assets.
At present, VA is sitting on $23 billion worth of facility condition deficiencies across its portfolio alone, that is the maintenance backlog. This figure has doubled in ten years. Clearly, VA’s non-recurring maintenance budget is insufficient. Congress, and many others bear the blame for this funding gap.
We should ask ourselves - How much care has been sent out to the community because physical plant space at facilities is subpar or doesn’t reflect best practices in 21st century healthcare delivery?
My colleagues across the aisle will likely argue today that potentially spending $18 billion on VA’s infrastructure is premature because it “fails to consider existing reform efforts already underway,” alluding to the AIR Commission. They will argue we should wait for the Commission’s findings.
Given the severity of underfunding as it relates to VA’s capital assets, we cannot afford to wait until the AIR Commission provides recommendations to Congress and the White House. Life safety and seismic issues across the portfolio must be addressed NOW. Regular maintenance should not be delayed because of budgetary concerns. Nor should we delay retrofitting facilities to meet the needs of VA’s fastest growing population—women veterans— or delay addressing the lessons learned from this Nation’s first pandemic in more than 100 years.
If we’re going to build back veterans’ trust in VA, we have to start making serious investments in the outdated infrastructure meant to serve them—and nearly three fourths of Americans agree.
Aside from robust physical infrastructure, equally important is the workforce VA needs to deliver healthcare and benefits to veterans. Human capital is a very critical part of the infrastructure at VA. VA can improve buildings or build new facilities, but if VA does not have the workforce to staff them then it cannot deliver on our promise to veterans. Complex hiring authorities, non-competitive salaries, lengthy onboarding processes, and other administrative barriers impact VA’s ability to meet staffing needs across all occupations.
We also need to address a shortage of staff in areas such as information technology and infrastructure management to ensure that VA can keep pace with changing conditions and new resource needs.
Further complicating this process is the general lack of healthcare providers. The Nation’s workforce pipeline is insufficient to meet the needs of an aging population. We need to be doing more to identify and cultivate a diverse, high-quality healthcare workforce. While these broader challenges may sit outside this Committee’s jurisdiction, we can encourage VA to engage in conversations with other relevant agencies to highlight VA’s unique position as this Nation’s largest integrated healthcare system and how it might help address this issue.
For example, in recent years, VA has worked to expand its Graduate Medical Education program by nearly 1,500 slots and based on conversations with Dr. Clancy, it sounds like VA has capacity to further expand its GME slots.
Addressing infrastructure at VA requires a three-pronged approach in my view. I’ve mentioned physical infrastructure and the workforce, but I also want to ensure we include the systems of support that help ensure equitable access. I would point to things like programs to adapt vehicles, tools to support telehealth, and efforts to improve accessibility so that veterans – no matter who they are, when they served, or where they live – are able to meaningfully access VA care and services.
Through the investments in the American Jobs Plan, we can restore veterans’ faith in VA by literally rebuilding the physical infrastructure of the VA system, investing in VA’s workforce, and providing much needed updates to the support structures that serve our veterans.
This is just an initial investment, but with President Biden’s plan as a framework, we can strengthen veterans’ connection to the Department while also building a stronger, more welcoming, and more effective VA.
I look forward to hearing from my colleagues and our witnesses about how we can meet VA’s infrastructure needs now and in the future.
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