VA Health Care: Framework for Analyzing Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services Decisions

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 2003-08-18.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

United States General Accounting Office
Washington, DC 20548

          August 18, 2003

          The Honorable Everett Alvarez, Jr.
          Chairman, CARES Commission
          Department of Veterans Affairs

          Subject: VA Health Care: Framework for Analyzing Capital Asset Realignment for
                   Enhanced Services Decisions

          Dear Mr. Chairman:

          On May 14, 2003, at your request, we briefed you on our preliminary views on the
          Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES) process initiated by the
          Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). On July 29, 2003, we met with your staff to
          share our additional perspectives, which they indicated would be helpful to the
          Commission as it considers the draft National CARES Plan that VA presented on
          August 4, 2003. For this reason, we are providing, for your consideration, an
          overview of the approach that we plan to use during our continuing review of CARES.

          As you know, VA operates one of the nation’s largest health care systems, having
          provided health care services to almost 4.3 million veterans in fiscal year 2002. In
          1999, we reported that better management of VA’s large, aged capital assets—
          consisting of a real property infrastructure that includes over 4,700 buildings and
          structures and 15,000 acres of land—could significantly reduce funds used to operate
          and maintain underused, unneeded, or inefficient properties. We also noted that
          these funds could be used to enhance health care services for veterans. Specifically,
          we recommended that VA develop market-based asset-restructuring plans that are
          consistent with guidelines from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which
          provide key principles and concepts for disciplined, cost-effective management of
          real property.3 In response, VA initiated the CARES process in October 2000.

            See U.S. General Accounting Office, VA Health Care: Capital Asset Planning and Budgeting Need
          Improvement, GAO/T-HEHS-99-83 (Washington, D.C.: Mar. 10, 1999), and VA Health Care:
          Improvements Needed in Capital Asset Planning and Budgeting, GAO/HEHS-99-145 (Washington,
          D.C.: Aug. 13, 1999).
            VA subsequently defined a health care market as a geographic area having a sufficient population and
          geographic size to benefit from the coordination and planning of health care services and to support a
          full health care delivery system.
            Office of Management and Budget, Capital Programming Guide, Version 1.0 (Washington, D.C.: July

                                                 GAO-03-1103R Enhancing VA Health Care by Realigning Assets
The challenge of misaligned infrastructure is not unique to VA. We identified federal
real property management as a high-risk area in January 2003 because of the
nationwide importance of this issue for all federal agencies.4 We did this to draw
attention to the need for broad-based transformation in this area, which, if well
implemented, will better position federal agencies to achieve mission effectiveness
and reduce operating costs. But VA and other agencies face common challenges, such
as competing stakeholder interests in real property decisions. In VA’s case, this
involves achieving consensus among such stakeholders as veterans’ service
organizations, affiliated medical schools, employee unions, and communities.
Recently, bills have been introduced in the Senate and House that would require a
minimum 60-day period for congressional committees to review and consider CARES
decisions before implementation.5

VA’s draft National CARES Plan proposes a wide range of health care asset
realignments and service enhancements based on analysis of VA’s current capacity
and accessibility to veterans and projections of the capacity necessary to meet the
future health care needs of veterans. This plan includes recommendations for
realigning clinical services from certain VA locations to existing VA-owned, new VA-
owned, or non-VA-owned health care delivery locations and includes proposals to
open some new VA delivery locations and close others. The Commission will play a
critical role in

        •   reviewing the draft national plan and documents that support it,
        •   collecting information through site visits and public hearings, and
        •   making specific recommendations to the Secretary based on its
            acceptance, modification, or rejection (with supporting comments) of VA’s
            draft recommendations.

Like the Commission, our continuing review of CARES is intended to help assure that
veterans’ health care needs are met effectively and efficiently. In developing our
approach, we relied on our prior testimonies and reports, OMB’s guidelines for
capital planning, VA’s CARES guidelines and other documents, VA’s capital
investment guidelines, and Commission documents. In addition, we spoke with
Commission staff and VA’s CARES staff. We conducted our work from February
through August 2003 in accordance with generally accepted government auditing

In summary, our approach for analyzing CARES decisions will focus on a series of
fundamental questions regarding whether

            •   appropriate alternatives were considered and
            •   key impacts of competing alternatives were appropriately evaluated.

  See U.S. General Accounting Office, High Risk Series: Federal Real Property, GAO-03-122
(Washington, D.C.: January 2003) .
  S. 1283, H.R. 2659, and H.R. 2808, 108th Cong. (2003).
  See Related GAO Products at the end of this report.

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As shown in the figure below, our framework examines whether choices about the
development of capital asset realignment alternatives ensure consideration of
alternatives that potentially provide the greatest payoffs, particularly in comparison
to the status quo, that is, maintaining VA’s existing real property infrastructure for the
delivery of health care. It also examines the impacts of such alternatives, focusing on
comparisons of their key costs and benefits in a manner consistent with OMB and
CARES guidelines.

Figure 1: GAO’s Framework for Analyzing CARES Decisions

In our view, the success of CARES depends on ensuring that the best alternatives for
meeting veterans’ needs within a market are recommended and a transparent public
record is developed that sufficiently documents the justification supporting CARES
decisions. A complete, fact-based public record can facilitate political consensus by
allowing the Congress and other stakeholders to focus their deliberations on trade-
offs among the benefits and costs of alternatives for realigning health care assets and
enhancing care.

Ensuring That Appropriate Alternatives Are Considered

OMB guidelines state that when evaluating capital assets, a comparison of
alternatives is critical for ensuring that the best alternative is selected. In its
guidance, OMB challenges decision makers to consider the different ways in which
various functions, most notably health care service delivery in VA’s case, can be

3                                 GAO-03-1103R Enhancing VA Health Care by Realigning Assets
performed. Moreover, OMB encourages the use of imagination, tempered with
experience, to develop ideas that could have the greatest payoffs. In this regard,
OMB labeled the development of alternatives the single most important element in
that process.

OMB's guidelines also suggest that alternatives include an assessment of the
continued viability of existing capital assets. VA currently owns and operates
significant investments in real property at 173 health care delivery locations. For
CARES purposes, VA designated 77 geographic areas as health care markets with the
goal of ensuring the availability of an appropriate continuum of care for veterans in
each market. Thus, in the CARES context, assessing the desirability of VA’s existing
assets would mean evaluating the contribution of VA’s current delivery locations to
their respective markets’ continuum of care. A full assessment of alternatives for any
market will require consideration of alternatives to the status quo for each location,
including whether some existing locations might need to be supplemented or
enhanced and whether it might be better to replace some existing locations with a
more effective and efficient configuration of assets. VA's CARES process also targets
higher priority situations that warrant special attention, including

          •   markets with the largest increases or decreases in predicted workload
              (such as the number of days of inpatient care and outpatient visits)
              over the next 20 years,
          •   markets with the largest proportions of veterans who have long travel
              times to existing VA health care delivery locations,
          •   individual health care delivery locations that are proximate to each
              other, and
          •   individual inpatient care delivery locations that are predicted to have
              small workloads.

Consistent with OMB and CARES guidelines, our approach will examine whether
alternatives considered by VA and the Commission represent the best CARES service
realignment outcomes that are potentially available for each individual health care
delivery location within the CARES-designated markets. Toward that end, we plan to
review whether the evidence indicates that consideration was given to realignment
alternatives that reflect an appropriate range of alternatives involving health care
services, delivery locations, and capital investments. In terms of the health care
services offered at individual locations, alternatives range from maintaining the status
quo to closing a delivery location. Intermediate alternatives could involve realigning
one or more clinical services (such as vascular surgery or hemodialysis) or groups of
related services (such as acute inpatient care or inpatient surgery) from one location
to another. In terms of delivery locations, alternatives include maintaining existing or
developing new VA-owned delivery locations, collaborating with other federal
agencies such as the Department of Defense (DOD), or purchasing care from
nonfederal providers such as community hospitals. In terms of capital investment
decisions, alternatives include renovating existing assets, acquiring new assets, and
disposing of unneeded assets.

Potentially viable alternatives would depend on the individual circumstances within
CARES-designated markets, most notably, whether VA owns and operates assets at

4                                GAO-03-1103R Enhancing VA Health Care by Realigning Assets
more than one health care delivery location in a market. Of the 74 CARES markets
currently under consideration, 24 have a single delivery location with significant real
property investments, 47 have two or more such locations, and 3 have no locations
with significant real property investments. For example, the best alternatives in VA’s
24 single-location markets could include the status quo, establishment of a new VA
delivery location, collaborating with federal agencies, or purchasing care from private
providers. In the 47 markets where VA operates multiple delivery locations, the best
alternatives for delivery locations could also involve realigning individual services,
groups of services, or all services to nearby VA delivery locations.

Ensuring That Key Impacts of Competing Alternatives Are Evaluated

OMB guidelines state that robust comparisons of costs and benefits facilitate
selection among competing alternatives and that information regarding such analyses
of competing alternatives should be provided in a simple, easy to understand format.
Doing so involves identifying the likely consequences of specific alternatives on key
impact areas and then comparing the costs and benefits of competing alternatives to
determine which alternative best meets veterans’ health care needs effectively and
efficiently. Consistent with OMB guidelines, CARES guidelines call for impact
analyses of specific costs and benefits to be considered when evaluating health care
service realignment alternatives. Our approach to reviewing competing alternatives
will focus on whether evidence is available for decision makers and stakeholders to
understand the trade-offs among key impact areas—quality of care, access to care,
cost to the government, support for VA’s other strategic goals, and economic impact
on the local community.

Quality of care includes continuity and coordination of care and patient safety. We
will examine evidence documenting how alternatives are likely to preserve or
improve the quality of care, for example, by ensuring that the volume of procedures
will be sufficient to maintain the proficiency of providers, such as surgeons.
Similarly, we will examine documentation indicating how outcomes could be affected
if there are changes in interdependent services, such as cardiac surgery and intensive

Access to health care services is also a key impact area. For CARES, VA defines
reasonable access in terms of travel times to its health care delivery locations. We
will examine evidence to determine how the percentage of patients currently meeting
VA’s access goals compares to the expected percentage of patients meeting VA goals
under each competing alternative and whether CARES realignments bring services
closer to where veterans live. CARES also addresses access to health care in terms
of capacity and projected workloads. We will examine evidence of the likely effects
of realignment alternatives on ensuring that capacity will match projected demand,
an important factor in ensuring reasonable access in terms of waiting times for

 Three of VA’s markets are not currently being considered because VA made realignment decisions for
those markets during a pilot phase of the CARES process. These markets cover parts of Indiana,
Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

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In addition, the cost to the government, which involves one-time, recurring, and
opportunity costs, is another key area in which alternatives can have varying impacts.
We will examine evidence documenting how alternatives differ in their life cycle
costs—the discounted present value of all one-time capital costs, continuing costs of
operation and maintenance, and cost offsets available through potential revenue
generation. A focus on life cycle costs is especially critical to assessing the efficiency
of resource use when there is significant variation across competing alternatives in
the initial one-time capital investment requirements and ongoing costs of operation
and maintenance.

Another key element is support of other VA strategic goals. These strategic goals
include educating health care professionals, conducting research, and serving as a
primary backup to DOD in the event of a national emergency or natural disaster, and
other strategic goals related to providing disability compensation and ensuring that
veterans’ burial needs are met. For example, we will examine evidence documenting
how alternatives affect education programs, research opportunities and funding, and
VA’s ability to meet DOD contingency needs in the event of national emergency.

Economic impact on communities, including employees and local health care
delivery systems, is the final key element we will review. For example, we will
examine evidence to determine how alternatives could affect employment
opportunities and the viability of other health care providers and related businesses
and how VA plans to mitigate likely adverse consequences of CARES decisions.

OMB guidelines state that once the impacts on these key elements have been
identified for each alternative developed, the best alternative can be identified
through an explicit comparison of their relative expected costs and benefits. We will
examine evidence to determine whether descriptions of such comparisons
demonstrate how the recommended alternative better ensures appropriate quality of
care, reasonable access to care, reasonable cost to the government, effective support
for other VA strategic goals, and acceptable economic impact on communities.
Because decisions will typically involve trade-offs between benefits and costs, we
will focus especially on whether the priorities that influenced trade-off choices were
clearly articulated. Finally, we will examine the explanations to determine if
decisions in different markets were based on different priorities and if so, whether
such differences were well documented.

Concluding Observations

Veterans and stakeholders such as affiliated medical schools, employee unions,
communities, and the Congress will likely be more confident that CARES service
realignments and enhancements represent the best alternatives for meeting veterans’
health care needs if the public record provides transparent and well-supported
answers to the types of questions we are using in our approach. Reaching consensus
on the realignment of VA’s health care capital assets as expeditiously as possible

6                                 GAO-03-1103R Enhancing VA Health Care by Realigning Assets
depends on the sufficiency of the information provided in support of CARES
decisions and the clarity of that documentation.


We will send copies of this report to interested congressional committees and the
Secretary of Veterans Affairs. The report will also be available at no charge on GAO’s
Web site at http://www.gao.gov. We will make copies available to others upon
request. If you have questions, please contact me at (202) 512-7101 or Paul Reynolds
at (202) 512-7109. Kristen Joan Anderson and Frederick Caison also contributed to
this report.

Sincerely yours,

Cynthia A. Bascetta
Director, Health Care—Veterans’
 Health and Benefits Issues

7                                 GAO-03-1103R Enhancing VA Health Care by Realigning Assets
                            Related GAO Products

Department of Veterans Affairs: Key Management Challenges in Health and
Disability Programs. GAO-03-756T. Washington, D.C.: May 8, 2003.

VA Health Care: Improved Planning Needed for Management of Excess Real
Property. GAO-03-326. Washington, D.C.: January 29, 2003.

High-Risk Series: Federal Real Property. GAO-03-122. Washington, D.C.: January

Major Management Challenges and Program Risks: Department of Veterans
Affairs. GAO-03-110. Washington, D.C.: January 2003.

VA Health Care: Community-Based Clinics Improve Primary Care Access. GAO-
01-678T. Washington, D.C.: May 2, 2001.

VA Health Care: VA Is Struggling to Address Asset Realignment Challenges.
GAO/T-HEHS-00-88. Washington, D.C.: April 5, 2000.

VA Health Care: Improvements Needed in Capital Asset Planning and Budgeting.
GAO/HEHS-99-145. Washington, D.C.: August 13, 1999.

VA Health Care: Challenges Facing VA in Developing an Asset Realignment
Process. GAO/T-HEHS-99-173. Washington, D.C.: July 22, 1999.

Veterans’ Affairs: Progress and Challenges in Transforming Health Care. GAO/T-
HEHS-99-109. Washington, D.C.: April 15, 1999.

VA Health Care: Capital Asset Planning and Budgeting Need Improvement.
GAO/T-HEHS-99-83. Washington, D.C.: March 10, 1999.

Executive Guide: Leading Practices in Capital Decision-Making. GAO/AIMD-99-
32. Washington, D.C.: December 1998.

VA Health Care: Closing a Chicago Hospital Would Save Millions and Enhance
Access to Services. GAO/HEHS-98-64. Washington, D.C.: April 16, 1998.


8                              GAO-03-1103R Enhancing VA Health Care by Realigning Assets
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