Department of Veterans Affairs:

Issues Related to Real Property Realignment and Future Health Care Costs

GAO-11-877T: Published: Jul 27, 2011. Publicly Released: Jul 27, 2011.

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This testimony discusses lifetime costs of supporting the newest generation of veterans. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) operates one of the largest health care delivery systems in the nation, providing care to a diverse population of veterans. VA operates about 150 hospitals, 130 nursing homes, and 820 outpatient clinics through 21 regional health care networks called Veterans Integrated Service Networks. VA is responsible for providing health care services to various populations--including an aging veteran population and a growing number of younger veterans returning from the military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Budgeting for this vital health care mission is inherently complex. It is based on current assumptions and imperfect information, not only about program needs, but also on future economic and policy actions that may affect demand and the cost of providing these services. Adding to this complexity, VA has recognized over the years the need to plan and budget for facility modernization, and realign its real property portfolio to provide accessible, high-quality, and cost-effective access to its services. The statement today addresses VA's real property realignment efforts and VA's approach to developing budget estimates for health care. It is based on our prior real property realignment work, where we examined the extent to which VA's capital planning efforts resulted in changes to its real property portfolio, helped VA identify facility planning priorities, and reflected leading federal practices for real property management. It is also based on our prior budget estimate work, where we examined how VA develops its health care budget estimate, addressed what VA identified as the key changes that were made to its budget estimate to develop the President's budget request for fiscal years 2012 and 2013, and explained how various sources of funding for VA health care and other factors informed the President's budget requests.

Through its capital planning efforts, VA has taken steps to realign its real property portfolio from hospital based, inpatient care to outpatient care, but a substantial number of costly projects and other long-standing challenges remain. For example, VA reported in its 5-year capital plan for fiscal years 2010-2015 that it had a backlog of $9.4 billion of facility repairs. The 5-year plan further identified an additional $4.4 billion in funding to complete 24 of the 69 ongoing major construction projects. We also found that VA, like other agencies, has faced underlying obstacles that have exacerbated its real property management challenges and can also impact its ability to fully realign its real property portfolio. We have previously reported that such challenges include competing stakeholder interests, legal and budgetary limitations, and capital planning processes that did not always adequately address such issues as excess and underutilized property. Furthermore, we found that VA's capital planning efforts generally reflected leading practices, but lacked transparency about the cost of future priorities that could better inform decision making. VA concurred with our recommendation to improve the transparency of its budget submissions. We have not yet assessed the extent to which VA has implemented our recommendation in relation to the President's 2012 budget. VA uses what is known as the Enrllee Health Care Projection Model (EHCPM) to develop most of its health care budget estimate and uses other methods for the remainder. The EHCPM's estimates for these services are based on three basic components: projected enrollment in VA health care, projected use of VA's health care services, and projected costs of providing these services. The EHCPM makes a number of complex adjustments to the data to account for characteristics of VA health care and the veterans who access VA's health care services. For example, these adjustments take into account veterans' age, gender, geographic location, and reliance on VA health care services compared with other sources, such as health care services paid for by Medicare or private health insurers. VA officials identified changes made to its estimate of the resources needed to provide health care services to reflect policy decisions, savings from operational improvements, resource needs for initiatives, and other items. The President's request for appropriations for VA health care for fiscal years 2012 and 2013 relied on anticipated funding from various sources, including new appropriations, collections, unobligated balances of multiyear appropriations, and reimbursements VA receives for services provided to other government entities.

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