VA budget request estimates lacked transparency, says GAO
The Veterans Affairs Department may not have provided Congress with accurate healthcare service estimates in its fiscal 2013 appropriations request, according to a June 11 Government Accountability Office report (.pdf). This lack of transparency "results in unclear information for congressional deliberation," say report authors.
The budget estimate is inaccurate for two reasons, says GAO. Spending estimates for the non-recurring maintenance, or NRM, portion of VA's healthcare budget ignored the "long-standing pattern" of NRM spending exceeding its estimates and was instead "based on a policy decision," says the report.
What's more, expected savings from some operational improvements lack analytical support, say report authors.
"VA may have to make difficult trade-offs to manage within its fiscal years 2012 and 2013 resources if the estimated savings from operational improvements, such as proposed changes to purchasing and contracting, do not materialize," says GAO.
Each February, VA healthcare services is required to make a request for the coming fiscal year and an advanced appropriations request for the next fiscal year.
The president's fiscal year 2013 budget request for VA health care services was $165 million more than the advance appropriations request for the same year. Estimates for the "initiatives" portion of the VA healthcare budget were particularly scrutinized in the report.
The initiatives estimate increased $2 billion in the fiscal 2013 request from the advanced appropriations request for the same year, and the ongoing health care services estimate decreased by $2.1 billion. Estimates changed because there was a change in reporting methodology and more funding was needed, Office of Management and Budget staff and VA officials reportedly told GAO.
But, "by not stating in its budget justification that it made this change, VA has not made it transparent that the estimate for initiatives is greater and the estimate for ongoing services is less than they would have been using VA's past reporting approach," says the report.
VA also did not make clear that the advanced appropriation request for fiscal 2013 included funding for only some of the initiatives the agency intended to continue, says GAO.
Report authors recommend VA clarify in its budget justification whether estimates include funding for ongoing services, and VA should take into account that NRM typically requires more funding than estimated.
- download report, GAO-12-689 (.pdf)