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Department of Veterans Affairs Expiring Authorities Act

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

Mr. Speaker, this bill, which is sponsored by our Senate colleague, Senator Isakson, chairman of the Senate VA Committee, would extend a number of expiring current authorities and critical programs at both the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Labor. These include extensions for veterans' health care and homeless programs; benefits for disabled veterans; vocational rehabilitation programs for service members and veterans; home loan programs; and a variety of advisory committees, pilot programs, and medical facility projects.

Absent passage of this legislation today, these important and noncontroversial authorizations and programs are set to expire at the end of this fiscal or calendar year. These are not new programs, and the costs have either been fully offset or have been assumed in the baseline budget for fiscal year 2016. Furthermore, both the majority and minority of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans' Affairs have worked on this language and agree on the need to extend all of these programs.

In addition to the extensions that are included, this bill also contains language that would increase the total authorization for the Denver Replacement Medical Center project to $1.675 billion. This is an increase of $625 million above the amounts that have previously been authorized for this project.

To ensure that the many egregious mistakes the VA has made in Denver are not repeated in the future, this bill would put into place initial reforms for managing the most expensive VA construction projects. Namely, these reforms include creating a new classification category called a super construction project.

A super construction project would be defined as the construction, alteration, or acquisition of a VA medical facility involving the total expenditure of more than $100 million. Each super construction project would be managed not by VA, but instead by a non-Department Federal entity, such as the Army Corps of Engineers. Importantly, the bill would classify the Denver project as a super construction project.

While I am supportive of the provisions of this bill up to this point, I vehemently oppose and disagree with the Department's proposal to cover some of the increased costs of the Denver project. This bill could allow VA to proceed with the Department's proposed plan to use $200 million in offsets from the medical services account and through delayed activations for other construction projects.

Mr. Speaker, to understand the magnitude of the management incompetence of the Department of Veterans Affairs as it relates to construction, I think a little history is in order.

The replacement of the existing Denver VA Medical Center began as a discussion item back in 1999. The project was first envisioned as a shared facility on the former Fitzsimons Army Base in Aurora, Colorado. The initial estimate for a shared facility was $328 million.

After undergoing numerous scope changes over a period of several years, VA requested appropriations in 2010 for a stand-alone medical center replacement with a total estimated cost of $800 million. However, in December of last year, with less than 50 percent of the facility complete and staring down the $800 million authorization cap, the Civilian Board of Contract Appeals found VA to be in breach of its contract with its general contractor Kiewit-Turner. As a result, VA had no choice but to come to Congress and finally admit the severity of the mismanagement and the cost and schedule overruns that have come to characterize the Denver project.

In June, following an assessment to determine the probable cost of completing the project, the Army Corps of Engineers provided the final total required to finish the Denver project: $1.675 billion.

Several weeks ago, VA provided the committee with their plan as to what budget resources would be made available to fund the remaining dollars necessary for this project. This bill assumes that VA's plan is an appropriate way to move forward on this project.

VA first proposes to use $100 million in offsets derived from the higher than budgeted medical collections VA expects it will receive in fiscal year 2015 and 2016. Under law, VA medical care collection funds are retained by VA medical facilities to supplement their budgets to care for veterans. Thus, their proposed offset actually reduces VA's medical care budget by $100 million in fiscal year 2016 to partially fund the remainder of the Denver project.

I would have reservations about reducing VA's medical care budget in any year, but I am particularly concerned this year, because just a few weeks ago, I am sure the Members will recall, VA sounded the alarm that the funds budgeted for hepatitis C medications and care in the community for fiscal year 2016 are short.

VA also stated that they would need to shut down the whole hospital system. The whole hospital system would have to be shut down if additional funds for fiscal year 2015 were not provided. As a result, Congress met VA's eleventh hour plea with an additional $3.43 billion to ensure that veterans were not denied the care that they had earned.

Obviously, VA's proposal to cut medical care funds to complete the Denver replacement hospital when the public record clearly reflects VA's previous testimony over lack of funding in the medical care account is entirely inconsistent and inappropriate. Frankly, it borders on an attempt to mislead this Congress.

Secondly, VA proposes to use $100 million in offsets derived from reductions in construction and leasing activation costs due to schedule adjustments associated with several projects. When I asked what VA's plan was to address the funding for these adjustments, VA's response was that the Department would ensure that they request sufficient activation funding in future budget years to account for the reductions in the other projects.

In other words, it is not really an offset. They are going to ask for the money back. So by reducing other projects by $100 million in one year only to ask Congress next year for the funds to be replaced strains credibility once again for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

This isn't an offset. It is nothing more than a delayed supplemental request. In other words, VA is expecting the taxpayers to bail them out again. To agree to such a tactic would be akin to taking a child's allowance away for misbehavior, only to increase it later to make up for the reduction.

Offsetting the biggest construction failure in VA's history by cutting money from VA's medical services account and delaying facility activation costs until next year punishes the veterans of this Nation and the taxpayers for VA's incompetence.

Now, I appreciate the challenge VA has in identifying available money and producing a way ahead for

this project that is fair to taxpayers and veterans alike in a tight fiscal environment. However, VA continues to be oblivious to the need to prioritize their spending.

For example, as I address this House this afternoon, VA officials from across the country have gathered 40 miles away in Leesburg for a leadership conference that is costing the Department $1 million. That may seem like a small amount, but this is in addition to the $33.4 million that VA reported spending on conferences so far through the end of the third quarter of this fiscal year. To repeat, VA has reported spending $33.4 million so far through the end of the third quarter, with at least one and, likely, several other costly conferences that have yet to be accounted for.

What's more, Monday, the VA inspector general released a report on VA's relocation expenses program, which found that senior Veterans Benefits Administration officials had misused their positions for their own personal and financial benefit. These senior officials engineered the transfers of other senior officials as a way to increase pay for themselves and to other senior executive service employees and work around the pay freezes and bans on performance awards for senior leaders. One VBA leader alone received almost $300,000 in relocation expenses when she moved from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia.

In total, VBA spent over $1.7 million on reassignment expenses, including almost $1.3 million on relocation expenses for senior executives for fiscal years 2013 through 2015.

And now yesterday, the VA Office of Inspector General substantiated allegations that the St. Louis VA Health Care System mental health clinic inappropriately changed the status of mental health consults to ``complete'' prior to a provider actually completing the appointment with a patient in 60 percent of sampled consults.

To make matters worse, the IG substantiated that, in a review of fiscal 2013 facility performance pay assessments, eight full-time outpatient psychiatrists received an average of nearly $14,000 in performance pay. Seven of the eight psychiatrists met or exceeded the productivity goal, and, as a result, each received an average of around $2,900 for what proved to be faulty productivity achievements.

This is in keeping with the wanton and abusive VA spending practices that the committee has uncovered at VA facilities across our country.

For example, the committee recently found that the VA Palo Alto Health Care System has spent at least $6.3 million on art and consulting services. These projects include an art installation on the side of a parking garage that displays quotes by Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt in--wait for it--Morse code that cost $285,000. It actually lights up; also, a large rock sculpture in the courtyard in the middle of the mental health center that cost $1.3 million--for a rock; a stainless steel and aluminum sculpture in the aquatic center entrance that cost $365,000; another sculpture that I am at a loss to describe in an exterior lobby that cost $305,000; a sculpture in the shape of a half arc that is located inside the mental health center that cost $330,000. As many of these projects are not yet complete, these costs actually could increase.

Let me be clear: spending money on conferences and relocation expenses for VA employees and on art installations for VA facilities is not more important than taking care of the veterans of this Nation, providing them the health care that they have earned. It is simply beyond me why VA would choose to pay to complete the Denver project by cutting medical services and medical facility dollars, but not the exorbitant conference spending, bloated relocation expenses, or art.

I remain committed to finding a way forward in Denver, and I am going to be supporting the bill today. However, I am equally convinced that we must ensure that the offsets that VA uses in Colorado do not come at the expense of VA's most important mission: providing high-quality health care for veterans. Unfortunately, VA's plan offers no assurance.

I am also frustrated that the Department's plan, which this bill presumes is appropriate, offers no measure of accountability for those responsible for allowing this project to balloon out of control. The VA senior executives in charge of the Denver disaster collected massive bonuses as projected costs increased and delays stretched on for years. They have all retired with full retirement benefits. It is inexcusable.

To allow rewards, bonuses, and full retirement benefits to be retained, even when the facts indicate that an employee has not performed at the level expected, is not only wrong, it is a blatant and woeful misuse of taxpayer dollars.

I have said repeatedly that the great majority of VA employees are hardworking public servants who go to work every day and live up to President Lincoln's words, to provide quality health care and benefits to our Nation's veterans.

What's more, I believe that the majority of VA employees who are dedicated to the mission and purpose of the Department are just as frustrated and demoralized as we are when they see problem employees receiving bonuses or performance awards in spite of poor, unethical, and sometimes illegal job performance.

I just wish that this legislation could assure those quality employees that the veterans that they serve--that this Congress and this Department are committed to breaking VA's vicious cycle of ignoring and even rewarding poor performance.

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I, too, think it is very important that we pass this piece of legislation today, but our job here is not finished. We must ensure that the appropriators now do their job and make sure that VA doesn't, as the gentlewoman from Nevada (Ms. Titus) said, rob Peter to pay Paul. It is important that we not take necessary dollars away from veteran health care in order to pay for their massive mismanagement of this particular facility.

I urge a positive vote on this Senate bill.

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