U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki speaks to the media in January. (Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images)
The Veterans Affairs Department plans to cut staffing at its sprawling regional management offices, as officials seek to head off legislation that would slash the number of those offices from 21 to 12.
The proposed cuts will be part of a broader realignment set to go to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki for approval in a few weeks, VA’s William Schoenhard told the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
The regional management offices have a combined workforce of more than 1,700 employees, according to VA. The department hopes to avoid layoffs and instead handle the reductions through attrition and relocations, Schoenhard, who oversees health operations and management at the department, said after the hearing. The number of job cuts “will vary by location,” he said.
When VA executives created the regional offices, known as veterans integrated service networks (VISNs), in 1995 in hopes of improving patient care and lowering costs, they predicted they would run on a staff of 220 with an annual budget of $27 million. Along with a much larger workforce, the 21 offices cumulatively spend more than $203 million a year, the department’s inspector general recently concluded in audits that found lax management and an array of other problems.
Besides cutting the number of networks to 12, a bill by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., would cap staff at each remaining management office at 65 employees. Together, the proposed changes should improve efficiency and channel more resources “to direct patient care,” said Burr, the committee’s top Republican, at the hearing.
But Dr. Madhulika Agarwal, deputy VA undersecretary for health policy and services, objected that the bill was “too prescriptive.” In her prepared testimony, Agarwal also questioned Burr’s plans to create four new regional support centers to assess the VISNs’ effectiveness. Those centers could end up employing more than 100 people each, she said, undercutting the goal of reducing the workforce.
Last year, Disabled American Veterans and four other veteran advocacy groups singled out the VISNs as a potential source of savings for VA. DAV is taking no position on Burr’s bill, lobbyist Joy Ilem said at the hearing. Instead, she said, Congress should commission an independent study before setting a cap on the number of networks or employees.
The committee will vote on Burr’s measure next month, said the chairman, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.