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VA puts off spending $765M to replace equipment

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By Bloomberg News
Monday, May 13, 2013, 7:30 p.m.
 

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs postponed purchases of cardiac monitors, radiological equipment and pain-medication pumps for patients last year. It didn't replace old surgical tools, oxygen-delivery systems or deteriorating operating-room stretchers.

In all, the agency delayed more than $765 million it was authorized to spend, affecting veterans' medical care in some cases, according to VA documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act.

The department, criticized by veterans for claims backlogs and bottlenecks in mental health care, transferred the money into a holding account. It was the biggest amount deferred in at least 10 years and more than eight times the amount shifted to the fund two years earlier, the records show.

“It makes no sense to postpone those kinds of small-ticket items, like microscopes and supplies,” said Rick Weidman, executive director of policy and government affairs for the Vietnam Veterans of America.

The VA delayed the orders because it wanted to ensure it was spending efficiently and making enough awards to small businesses, said Josh Taylor, an agency spokesman. Even so, the account is under scrutiny. The House Veterans' Affairs Committee is probing the department's use of the account, according to a panel staff member not authorized to publicly discuss the issue.

The department's funding has jumped more than 40 percent, to about $140 billion this year, compared with fiscal 2009, a boost to help the agency cope with a surge of veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The withheld money represented less than 1 percent of its budget in the year ended Sept. 30, Taylor said. It was delayed “to ensure efficient and effective spending of resources, and achieve small-business contract goals,” he said in an e-mail.

Several of the documents obtained by Bloomberg showed purchases were delayed even after agency officials said veterans' medical care had been affected.

A VA office in New York, for example, delayed $79,200 in orders for London-based Smiths Group's infusion pumps, used to deliver pain medication for patients, according to the records.

“We are requesting them immediately as the pain management of our patients has been and will remain negatively impacted until they are replaced,” one document stated.

VA buyers held off spending $128,270 to replace damaged surgical equipment. “These items are broken or unrepairable, directly affecting surgical services from providing adequate care to our veterans,” Paul Russo, director of the agency's health care system in Miami, said in the document.

In 1,300 pages of documents, the agency often provided no explanation for delays. This included deferred oxygen-delivery systems from CareFusion Corp. and cardiac monitors from General Electric.

The VA records also didn't show why plans for new operating room stretchers would be put off even though the old ones were outdated and “falling apart.”

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