The platitudes coming from the mouthpiece at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center about the hospital's financial challenges are just short of, "Don't worry, be happy." That sort of arrogant, condescending attitude should not sit well with veterans and other taxpayers. Haley is a public hospital funded with public money to provide top-quality care for veterans, and it should be more transparent about its budget woes and their impact on patients.
The Department of Veterans Affairs sent the Tampa hospital $28.7 million in cash from VA reserves to cover a shortfall once estimated as high as $47.5 million, the Times' William R. Levesque reported Sunday. Haley needs that much cash to balance its books at the end of the fiscal year, even after spending cuts that included reducing lab services by $1.5 million and cutting staff through attrition by 111 positions. There are serious issues here that deserve more transparent treatment than a canned statement from VA spokeswoman Mary Kay Hollingsworth that Haley "will continue to improve efficiencies and reduce costs.''
Members of Congress are getting no better treatment as they seek information. The chairman and ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee sent a letter last month to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki about the Tampa hospital's budget issues. Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., and ranking member Richard Burr, R-N.C., expressed concern that Haley's cuts "could have an adverse impact on patient care quality.'' They have yet to receive an answer.
The issue here is not bookkeeping errors or moving an expense from one column to another. Haley has run deficits for at least three years, and there should be a broader public discussion about how it spends money and whether it needs more tax dollars to better meet the needs of veterans. The hospital's new director, Kathleen Fogarty, should establish a new openness and insist that the hospital be more candid with the community about its fiscal challenges and how it is responding to them.
For example, one of the cuts already implemented includes the suspension of patient referrals to outside medical providers except in emergencies. More than 12,800 veterans were authorized to receive outside care in 2011, when the policy allowed them to seek such care when Haley was too busy or did not provide a certain service. Exactly how will this change affect waiting times for treatment and quality of care?
Haley expects some relief from pressing patient demands when a new veterans hospital opens in Orlando next year. And hospital officials say they do not expect to run an operating deficit in the 2012 fiscal year, which began on Saturday. Given recent history, those general assurances are not enough. If Haley will not voluntarily be more open with the public and the veterans it serves, Congress should insist upon some straight answers.