Lawmakers say VA can't blame woes on lack of funding

In the past four fiscal years, the Charlie Norwood Veterans Affairs Medical Center received the most funding from Congress when delays were at their worst in the Augusta hospital’s troubled gastrointestinal clinic, leading to three deaths.

According to federal budget figures obtained by The Augusta Chronicle, congressional funding approved for the hospital has hovered around $295 million over the past four fiscal years, except in 2012, when general-purpose dollars for medical care increased to $312 million.

Despite the 5 percent boost in funding, three veterans died that year after Augusta VA administrators failed to schedule 4,580 endoscopy referrals for primary care physicians at the hospital, records show.

The area’s congressional representatives said budget data confirms the Augusta VA’s problems are a management issue, not one of funding.

“Funding should have been in place and adequate for medical services to be fully provided,” said Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C. “It’s not a funding problem. It’s really a management issue, but changes have been made.”

The medical center reported in January that it had cleared the backlog. Wilson; Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga.; and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., have said they’ve been assured the clinic’s failures were not the result of inadequate funding, but a procedural issue in which management was not effectively using the resources given to them.

“If they had an excuse or a reason to blame Congress, they would, but it is very difficult to pass the buck because we’ve been giving them a whole lot more money,” Bar­row said.

Budget authority – the amount of money a federal department or agency can spend or obligate by law – has increased significantly for veteran benefits and services since 1940.

Then, the budget authority was $56.1 million. In 2012, when factoring in inflation, it was at $125 billion because more services and benefits are needed for a veteran population that is aging and increasing from the drawdown of more wars, according to a report from the Con­gressional Research Service.

Isakson, a member of the Sen­ate Committee on Vete­rans Affairs, said funding shouldn’t have contributed to the problems at Charlie Norwood, particularly in 2012, a fiscal year in which the VA wasn’t forced to make mandated across-the-board budget cuts because of sequestration.

“If there is a shortage that causes a threat to life and health, then that should be reported and the money should be provided,” he said. “It should not be used (as) an excuse for somebody to die or get an infection.”

Though federal budget proposals are compiled on a macro level and do not include detailed information on how funding affects federal services by region, some representatives have agreements with the VA to provide local information about funding problems.

Barrow and Wilson said they are not aware of such a practice but think it is a good idea and plan to look into it.

Isakson has voted in favor of the past four federal budgets, which includes VA funding, except in 2013. Barrow has voted yes each time. Of Augusta’s area representatives, only Paul Broun, R-Ga., has voted no in all four years. Wilson voted yes only in 2014.

Isakson used to have a similar arrangement with former Lt. Gen. Eric Schoo­maker to track funding issues within the VA, but he said the VA has not continued that relationship since the Army surgeon general left in 2011.

“If the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center thinks it’s underfunded and underappropriated, it’s their responsibility to report it to me and I hope they do so,” he said. “But I have no record where they did.”

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