The Department of Veterans Affairs needs $17.6 billion in additional funds over the next three years to meet patients' needs and fix the troubled agency's problems, its acting director said Wednesday.
Testifying for the first time on Capitol Hill, interim VA Secretary Sloan Gibson told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that the money would help VA medical centers decrease appointment waiting times and hire more doctors.
But the request divided lawmakers. Democrats, including Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, supported the appeal, while Republicans, including Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska, questioned whether VA care would improve if it received additional funding.
"This sounds so similar to what we've heard over the years," Johanns said, adding that the committee had routinely met previous VA requests for additional funding.
"If you can't clean up your act, then guess what? You lose out," he said. "I don't think you need more billions and billions of dollars."
Gibson said the VA would use the $17.6 billion to hire 10,000 new clinical staff members, including 1,500 doctors. It would allocate $6 billion for infrastructure improvements, including building eight new medical facilities and leasing 77 more around the country.
The money would come on top of funds included in a separate bipartisan reform bill that both houses of Congress passed in June. That legislation is in a conference committee to work out differences.
The reform measure would allow the VA to do more contracting with private medical centers to meet demand. Some veterans and others have argued that using the private sector to supplement veterans' healthcare would be faster and cheaper than waiting for the VA to beef up its own staff.
Granting veterans more access to private-sector care would cost $38 billion a year if phased in by 2016, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated, using figures in the Senate bill.
Eric K. Shinseki resigned as Veterans Affairs secretary in May after an audit found that veterans had to wait months for medical appointments and that VA medical centers were covering up the delays.
Gibson apologized for the lack of accountability in the agency's vast healthcare system and acknowledged the VA would have to regain the public's trust. But without the additional funds, he warned, waiting times could get longer and problems would persist.
As of July 8, Gibson said, the VA's healthcare system had reached out to more than 160,000 veterans to get them off waiting lists and into clinics sooner. He added that the VA had referred more than 430,000 veterans to the private sector for care between May 15 and June 30.
Gibson is leading the VA pending confirmation of President Obama's nominee, Bob McDonald. The former chief executive of Procter & Gamble will face confirmation hearings next week.