Chairwoman Wasserman Schultz Statement at Status of Department of Veterans Affairs Infrastructure Hearing
Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Chair of the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, delivered the following remarks at the Subcommittee's hearing on the Status of Department of Veterans Affairs Infrastructure:
Today we welcome Brett Simms, Executive Director of the Office of Asset and Enterprise Management at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
He is accompanied by Tony Costa, Deputy Executive Director of Construction & Facilities Management, and Edward Litvin, Deputy to the Assistant Under Secretary for Health for Administrative Operations at the Veterans Health Administration.
I am very glad you three are here today to discuss VA’s infrastructure programs.
The topic of VA’s aging infrastructure is one that too often gets overlooked when we think about how we meet veterans’ needs.
But when we’re talking about providing our veterans with the best health care possible, infrastructure must be part of that discussion.
Of course, VA’s capital assets stretch beyond just health care facilities – the benefits offices where a veteran seeks support, or the cemeteries where their loved ones come to pay their respects, are just as essential to our mission of serving the veteran throughout their lives.
We also need to keep in mind that these are facilities where VA employees are working day in and day out to provide for our veterans.
The quality of our infrastructure is a measure of respect for the veteran, their families, and the employees who care for them.
What does it say to our veterans when they are forced to seek care in crumbling buildings, with utility systems long past their useful life?
What does it say to the employees who choose to work at VA because they believe in the mission, when their fellow doctors, nurses, and other personnel in the private sector are working in bright, shiny buildings in some cases just down the street?
If we want to send a message to veterans that the VA is here and ready to care for them with the highest standards of care, our infrastructure needs to reflect that.
I have been to beautiful, state-of-the-art VA facilities. And, I have been to decrepit, aging facilities.
Your geography shouldn’t determine the quality of your care, or the quality of the facility where you receive it.
Yet, too often that is the case. There is such a backlog of essential projects, that veterans in one unlucky area may continuously have to go to an outdated or even unsafe facility, while a proposed replacement facility or modernization project waits its turn on a list that may take years or even decades for VA to work through.
I am hopeful that some of the work this Subcommittee has done over the past several years is setting VA on the right path.
Our Subcommittee has consistently directed funding toward VA’s infrastructure needs.
We provided an extra $4 billion in Fiscal Years 2018 and 2019, to assist with some of the backlog.
And even outside of this plus-up, total funding for Major Construction, Minor Construction, and Medical Facilities is nearly $2 billion higher than it was five years ago.
For the last three funding cycles, we have carved out specific funding for seismic corrections, to meet the tremendous backlog of those needs.
And, we have put in additional provisions in our bill to improve management of the largest, most complex projects by requiring VA to work with a non-VA government entity such as the Army Corps of Engineers on these projects, so that they can be completed more efficiently and effectively.
I want to make sure we are giving VA the tools to succeed, but we must also continue to give them the dollars to succeed.
In recent years, much of the focus of VA’s budget has been on direct health care.
And rightfully so – there were serious needs in health care delivery and in support of the health care system that had to be met, and we will continue to do so.
Draconian caps on discretionary spending meant that we had to make tough choices on where to put limited VA dollars. But we cannot overlook the real, serious infrastructure needs that exist as well.
It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.
Investing in infrastructure has broader benefits on the economy and on the local community, as it supports construction jobs, material manufacturers, and revitalizes neighborhoods.
And VA infrastructure is no different.
To be clear, we can’t make up the difference through cuts and closures.
While there may be welcome savings as VA increases its efforts to dispose of vacant or truly unneeded buildings, decisions on how and where to restructure VA health facilities can’t be just about dollars and cents.
That’s something we will be watching critically in the coming months and years as the Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission begins its work to make recommendations on realignment or modernization of VA facilities.
We will of course also be watching that process closely to ensure that it is done fairly and carefully, that it is not rushed or haphazard, and that it includes communication with Congress and with veterans organizations.
The infrastructure programs at VA are in many ways at the heart of how care is delivered.
Physical facilities determine how long a veteran has to drive to access care, what types of specialty care may be available at a local clinic, or what kind of capacity there is for certain services.
Population trends in a given area, community reliance on the VA, economic conditions, and environmental concerns like climate change also affect long-term needs.
I look forward to discussing how these concerns fit into VA’s long-term planning processes and strategic thinking as well.
I am very pleased to welcome back our Ranking Member, Judge Carter, who was unable to join us at our previous hearings due to the winter storms in Texas.