Chairman: Where did funds go?

Under Democratic control the last four years, the House voted to pump tens of billions of additional dollars into the Department of Veterans Affairs for improved benefits and health care.

The new Republican chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee says it’s time to learn where a lot of those dollars went and to provide better oversight of how VA budgets are shaped and spent.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., interviewed before the 112th Congress convened, said his predecessor as chairman, Democrat Bob Filner of California, was inclined to address veterans’ needs with more dollars.

Miller said he will be “more focused on helping to increase resources through efficiencies.”

Like Filner, the 51-year-old Miller is not a veteran. He was a real estate broker and former deputy sheriff before entering politics in Florida. In fall of 2001, after Joe Scarborough, now a TV personality, resigned his House seat, Miller won a special election to fill it and has represented Florida’s 1st Congressional District in Congress ever since.

Miller listed closer oversight of VA’s $125 billion budget as his top priority along with improving delivery of services to veterans.

Miller referred to “a culture in some areas of the VA system that has got to be brought up into the 21st Century.”

One issue Miller raised in our interview, as something he wants to expand, worries vet advocates. He wants to allow more veterans to get health care from private-sector doctors and hospitals, at VA’s expense, in situations where VA facilities are inconvenient to use.

In northwest Florida, he said, veterans still must travel to VA facilities in Biloxi, Miss., New Orleans and on to Birmingham, Ala., for care that they could be receiving locally at private hospitals.

Miller said. VA should expand fee-for-service exceptions beyond “rural communities.”

That raises alarms for veterans’ groups. They view such a move as a first step toward weakening the VA health care system. They also see it as a threat to VA continuity of care, particular for veterans with multiple health issues, all of which now get tracked and treated by a single system.

But Miller said he worries about older veterans or those with critical health issues having to travel too many miles to get the care the need.

Vet groups worry that sending more vets to private hospitals and doctors for care will make lawmakers reluctant to fund new VA medical centers and hospitals in areas of rising veteran populations if those areas also have plenty of private physicians and hospital beds.