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Improving Accountability at Veterans Affairs

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Improving Accountability at Veterans Affairs

May 16, 2024

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In 2023, Comptroller General Gene Dodaro explained why Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) must ensure that the department answers watchdog recommendations. “VA serves those who have served our nation, so its responsibilities are both vital and sacred.” He added that “the department continues to face challenges in delivering health care, managing acquisitions, providing disability benefits, and managing privacy and cybersecurity in its networks and systems.” He also discussed the VA’s ongoing work to prevent suicides, noting that the VA had not addressed all related GAO recommendations. In the past, congressional oversight has revealed how poor oversight and management within the VA can result in the unnecessary deaths of veterans and employees.

In addition to its sacred responsibility to provide services to our nation’s veterans and their families, the VA has a responsibility to effectively manage American taxpayer dollars. In 2024, the VA will spend more than $330 billion. As the United States faces growing fiscal challenges, including a rising national debt and net interest payments that will exceed $1 trillion annually within a decade, the VA must ensure that its appropriations are spent effectively and efficiently. In 2023, GAO estimated that its oversight of the VA has resulted in more than $11 billion in savings, and that implementing currently open recommendations for the VA could yield an additional $1 billion to $4 billion in savings. For an example of how the department could better manage its resources, earlier this month the Inspector General reported that the VA had spent $10 million on improper bonuses to senior executives.

As of May 13, 2024, GAO reports that 176 recommendations (including 18 priority recommendations) for the VA remain open. Thirty of these recommendations were made more than four years ago, which is important because GAO has warned that recommendations not made within four years are less likely to be implemented. Further, GAO found that, as of March, the VA had 13 open “duplication and cost savings” recommendations, of which five have been “partially addressed” and eight remain “not addressed."

The Department also needs to address recommendations made by its Inspector General. The IG’s dashboard shows that 886 of its recommendations for the VA are unimplemented, including 212 that were made between one and five years ago and three that were made more than five years ago.

Congress should conduct oversight to ensure that the VA has a transparent plan to implement open, nonpartisan watchdog recommendations in a timely manner. The Good Accounting in Government (GAO-IG) Act requires federal agencies to submit to Congress with its annual budget justification a report that details the status of its unimplemented GAO and IG recommendations, including “a timeline for full implementation.” However, GAO’s 2023 review of agencies’ GAO-IG reports found that the VA’s submission was incomplete, since it only “included some selected elements” and “followed some submission processes.” The VA’s 2024 report included with its Congressional Budget Justification does not include a timeline for full implementation of open recommendation and other information as required by the law.

To ensure that the Department of Veterans Affairs addresses its management challenges and effectively serves the nation’s veterans, the Congressional Appropriations Committee should include report language requiring the VA to brief Congress on the status of unimplemented GAO and IG recommendations and provide a plan for timely implementation. This briefing would allow lawmakers to obtain information missing from the VA’s 2024 GAO-IG Act report.

To improve accountability and transparency moving forward, the Congressional Appropriations Committees should include report language requiring the VA to submit a complete GAO-IG Act report in 2025 and with future budget submissions. This congressionally mandated report provides public accountability and transparency about the VA’s unimplemented watchdog recommendations and should enable ongoing congressional oversight to ensure that the VA effectively executes its missions and provides effective service to the nation’s veterans.

In short, requiring the VA to focus its attention on implementing nonpartisan watchdog recommendations in a timely manner would improve congressional oversight and help ensure that the Department addresses its longstanding management and performance challenges.

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