WASHINGTON—Nearly a year before they asked Congress for another $3 billion in funding, Veterans Affairs officials knew in late 2004 that their budget was seriously out of whack, congressional investigators say in a report released Wednesday.
The Government Accountability Office also found that the VA badly underestimated how many soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan might seek medical and other services, in part because of problems in getting accurate information from the Pentagon.
The VA relied on prewar data from the Defense Department in preparing its budget for fiscal 2005, even though the war was well under way, and estimated that 23,500 veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom would seek care that year. Instead, the number was four times greater, almost 100,000, the GAO study said.
The problems persisted in 2006, the current fiscal year. The GAO found that the VA will have to provide care for 87,000 more Iraq and Afghanistan veterans than anticipated this year, costing another $276 million.
In general, it says, the VA budgets for fiscal 2005 and 2006 were based on "unrealistic assumptions, errors in estimation and insufficient data."
More recently, the GAO said, the VA has been up to two months late in turning over its required quarterly budget updates to congressional committees, while providing more detailed monthly reports to the White House budget office.
The VA, in response to the report, said it "substantially agrees" with its findings and recommendations and has taken steps to correct the problems.
"VA is committed to ensuring that budget estimates accurately reflect mission requirements and are based on valid assumptions in providing high-quality health care to veterans," Gordon Mansfield, the deputy secretary of the VA, said in a letter to the GAO.
Some Democrats on Capitol Hill were skeptical, saying the report was an indictment of not only the VA and the Pentagon but also of the White House, for failing to anticipate the costs of going to war in Iraq.
"They took us to war and didn't have a plan," charged Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the second-ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and one of VA Secretary Jim Nicholson's sharpest critics on Capitol Hill. "For years the Bush administration has not been honest about the cost of the war, and this report shows how deep the deception is."
Murray was joined at a news conference by Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., also a member of the committee, who said the administration hadn't "told the truth" when it came to taking care of veterans.
"It belies common sense to believe they relied on numbers that were pre-Iraq," Salazar said. "At the end of the day, the buck stops at the White House."
Washington state has more than 700,000 veterans, and Murray said she continued to hear reports about long lines at VA benefit offices and lengthy waits for VA medical care.
"It would be bad enough if I heard it from one vet," Murray said. "But I am hearing it from a lot."
Salazar said the same was true nationwide.
More than 1.5 million U.S. soldiers have served in Iraq and Afghanistan so far, Murray said.
She said the VA had told the White House Office of Management and Budget that it would need another $1 billion every year for the next 10 years to cover its increased costs.
Murray and Salazar asked Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, to hold hearings on the VA's budget problems. A committee spokesman, Jeff Schrade, said the senator had made no decision.
"Senator Craig has noted in the past five years the VA budget has increased by 70 percent," Schrade said. "Senator Craig anticipates the VA budget will hit $100 billion by 2008. We've done a tremendous amount for vets and we will continue to focus hard on the budget."
Craig's committee first became aware of the magnitude of the VA's budget problems in spring 2005, even as Nicholson offered repeated assurances that everything would be all right.
The GAO said that by the fall of 2004 the VA's budget staff knew there would to be a problem and had formed a special working group to find ways to fill the looming budget gap.
"VA did not report this information to Congress in a sufficiently informative manner," the GAO said.
The report says cost savings that the White House budget office had demanded wouldn't pay dividends as quickly as thought and the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were underestimated.