WASHINGTON (AP) — A three-month highway spending bill scheduled for a vote Wednesday in the House includes nearly $3.4 billion to fill a budget hole that the Department of Veterans Affairs claims would force it to close hospitals and clinics nationwide. Lawmakers from both parties said the spending was needed even as they complained about the VA's failure to anticipate the problem.
An amendment sponsored by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, would allow VA to use $3.35 billion from the new Veterans Choice program to pay for private health care for veterans from May 1 to Oct. 1.
Under the amendment, the VA could use up to $500 million from the Choice program to cover costs of treating the deadly hepatitis C virus.
The VA has told Congress that it may shutter hospitals unless it receives flexibility to close a $2.5 billion shortfall caused by a sharp increase in demand by veterans for health care, including expensive treatments for hepatitis C. A single pill used for the liver-wasting infection can cost $1,000.
The Choice program, the centerpiece of a VA overhaul approved by Congress last year, makes it easier for veterans to receive federally paid medical care from local doctors. Congress approved $10 billion over three years for the Choice program, one of several programs used by the VA to provide medical care for an estimated 9 million veterans enrolled in the VA health care system.
Miller blasted VA leaders even as he sponsored the amendment plugging the agency's budget gap.
"It never ceases to amaze me how poorly managed VA's budget process is," Miller told reporters Tuesday.
"The VA's been saying they needed flexibility, but they never talked about closing hospitals if they didn't get the flexibility" until a few weeks ago, Miller said. "We are being forced by VA to reach into another pot of money to rescue one of their core missions."
VA Secretary Robert McDonald has denied that he or anyone else at VA had hidden or downplayed its budget problems. He said the VA is facing a crisis because of a sharp increase in demand for health care. The law approved last year increased veterans' access to health care, both within the VA and with local doctors who treat veterans at government expense, McDonald said.
The House bill would require VA to report to the House and Senate veterans committees every 14 days on how the newly authorized funds are being used.
Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.