By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Joe Biden's infrastructure plan includes $18 billion to upgrade and replace aging Veterans Affairs hospitals, but the agency needs five times that much to bolster facilities and medical staff, a Democratic lawmaker said on Thursday.
Mark Takano, chairman of the House of Representatives Veterans' Affairs Committee, told reporters the initial funding boost was significant but said he hoped the president's next legislative push would help fill a big shortage of doctors.
"There's still an urgent need to support hiring for the VA," Takano told reporters on a videoconference. "With over 39,000 vacancies, it's critical that we do more to expedite hiring at the VA."
Takano said the total needed was far higher than the amount earmarked in the Democratic president's $2.3 trillion infrastructure bill, but he was upbeat there was enormous public support for upgrading and replacing aging current facilities.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough told the videoconference the funding in the infrastructure bill was "just a down payment" that would help replace 10 or 12 of the 30 facilities needed, but he had no immediate estimate for the total investment required.
The VA's 1,700 hospitals, clinics and medical facilities had a median age of 58 years, compared with just 11 years for private hospitals in the United States, he said, noting that 69% of VA hospitals were more than 50 years old.
"A lack of modern infrastructure actually limits our ability to meet the evolving healthcare needs of veterans," McDonough said, adding that the VA's upkeep costs had nearly doubled to just over $22 billion in 2020 from $11.6 billion in 2010.
He said the VA also benefited from funds in Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief program and his proposed budget, which would increase the VA's base budget by 8.2% in fiscal 2022.
The infrastructure package, which must be approved by Congress, would also help the roughly 200,000 veterans who leave military service each year to transition to civilian jobs, and boost funding to help the estimated 2.5 million veteran-owned small businesses, officials said.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Peter Cooney)