oversight

VA Health Care: Contract Labor Cost Analysis in RAND Study

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 2003-06-30.

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

United States General Accounting Office
Washington, DC 20548



          June 30, 2003

          The Honorable Lane Evans
          Ranking Democratic Member
          Committee on Veterans’ Affairs
          House of Representatives

          Subject: VA Health Care: Contract Labor Cost Analysis in RAND Study

          Dear Mr. Evans:

          The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) spent about $23 billion to provide health
          care to over 4 million veterans in fiscal year 2002. To provide this care, VA relied
          primarily on its own employees, totaling about 190,000. VA also used contract
          employees, sometimes referred to as contract labor, to provide these services. In
          response to the requirements of the Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act of 1998
          (the FAIR Act),1 VA compiled an inventory of more than 180,000 full-time equivalent
          (FTE) positions that it determined to be “health care commercial” in nature. This
          means that the work carried out in these positions is also done in the private sector
          and could potentially be done by contract labor.

          As part of its management initiatives, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)
          has emphasized that competition should be used to determine the most effective and
          efficient way to provide commercial services. The process used to make this
          determination—referred to as competitive sourcing—is established in OMB Circular
          A-76. This process generally provides for competition between the government and
          the private sector on the basis of costs or costs and other factors. OMB has
          established competitive sourcing FTE targets for federal agencies to achieve as part
          of OMB’s management initiatives. In response to OMB’s FTE target for VA, VA
          established a plan to complete studies of competitive sourcing of 55,000 positions by
          2008.




          1
           Pub.L. No. 105-270, 112 Stat. 2382. The FAIR Act requires federal agencies to submit an annual
          inventory to the Office of Management and Budget of all their activities performed by federal
          employees that are not inherently governmental functions, that is, they are commercial in nature.
          OMB has defined a commercial activity as one that “is a recurring service that could be performed by
          the private sector and is resourced, performed, and controlled by the agency through performance by
          government personnel, a contract, or a fee-for-service agreement.” OMB Circular A-76, p. A-3,
          May 29, 2003.



                                                                              GAO-03-579R VA Contract Labor
RAND addressed limited aspects of the use of VA contract labor in a report that
                            2
examined another subject. In that report, RAND found that increased use of
contract labor appeared to decrease the overall costs at VA health care facilities.
However, the report’s finding differed from the interim finding that RAND briefed
your staff on earlier. In that briefing, RAND stated that contracting for labor could
result in higher, rather than lower, VA health care facility costs. Because of this
difference in RAND’s findings and your ongoing concerns about the impact of using
contract labor at VA, you asked us to (1) determine what data RAND used in its
contract labor analysis, (2) explain why RAND’s final and interim findings differed
regarding the effect of using contract labor on facility costs, and (3) assess whether
RAND’s report finding provides an adequate basis for making competitive sourcing
decisions.

To perform our work, we reviewed the RAND study; interviewed officials in VA’s
Resource Allocation and Analysis Office, which managed the RAND contract; and
interviewed authors of the RAND study. We also reviewed VA data analyzed by
RAND on contract labor costs to verify data in its report and to determine how
contract labor was defined. In addition, we relied on our prior work on VA
                     3
competitive sourcing. We conducted our work from March 2003 through June 2003
in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards.

Results in Brief

RAND used contract labor data provided by VA from its financial accounting system.
These data were for contract labor costs, such as for laundry and dry cleaning, for
each VA health care facility in fiscal year 2000. According to VA officials, the costs in
these accounts are predominately for contract labor costs. However, an
undetermined proportion of these costs could also be for costs other than contract
labor.

Data refinements that RAND made explain most of the difference between RAND’s
report finding and interim finding on the effect of contract labor on VA facility costs,
according to the study authors. In its report, RAND found that increasing contract
labor was associated with decreasing VA health care facility costs. In its interim
finding, RAND reported the opposite, namely that contract labor was associated with
higher, not lower, VA health care facility costs. RAND study authors told us that the
difference between their interim finding and their report finding resulted from certain



2
 RAND, An Analysis of Potential Adjustments to the Veterans Equitable Resource Allocation (VERA)
System (Santa Monica: California, 2003). The purpose of the study was to evaluate ways to improve
the health care allocation formula--the Veterans Equitable Resource Allocation system--that VA uses to
allocate resources to its 21 health care networks. Networks in turn allocate resources to their health
care facilities. In this work, RAND examined factors that were associated with increased costs at the
facility level.
3
    See Related GAO Products.


2                                                                    GAO-03-579R VA Contract Labor
data and analytical refinements that they made during the course of their research
and data validation work after the briefing. The most important refinement was to
exclude the costs of medical resident stipends and benefits from the contract labor
analysis in the report. RAND excluded these costs for the report because they are
not funded through the VA health care resource allocation system that RAND was
examining.

RAND’s finding on contract labor does not provide an adequate basis for making
competitive sourcing decisions. First, RAND’s purpose was not to address this issue
but instead to evaluate ways to improve VA’s health care resource allocation system,
according to the RAND study authors. For example, RAND did not examine the
effect of using contract labor for each contract service even though the association
with facility costs may vary by type of service. Second, VA contract labor data have
limitations that may affect their usefulness for analysis of the relationship between
use of contract labor and facility health care costs. One of these is that the data may
include some nonlabor costs. In addition, the small proportion of VA labor costs that
are for contract labor and the small variation across VA in the use of contract labor
limit the usefulness of these data for examining the relationship between contract
labor and facility costs, according to the RAND study authors.

In commenting on a draft of this report VA and RAND agreed with our findings.

Rand Used Contract Labor Data from VA’s Financial Accounting System

RAND used contract labor data provided by VA from its financial accounting system.
These data were for contract labor costs for each VA facility in fiscal year 2000. In
this system, VA has a number of budget accounts for contracted services such as
laundry and dry cleaning and professional charges for contract hospital and
outpatient treatment. (See table 1.) RAND used these budget accounts to determine
contract costs for fiscal year 2000. According to VA officials, the costs are
predominately for contract labor costs. However, an undetermined proportion of
these costs could also be for costs other than contract labor.




3                                                          GAO-03-579R VA Contract Labor
Table 1: VA Budget Accounts for Contract Labor Used by RAND

 Budget account         Name of account
 2513                   Automated Data Processing (ADP) Maintenance Support
 2514                   Systems Programming
 2520                   Repair of Furniture and Equipment
 2530                   Storage of Household Goods
 2535                   Interior Decorating Services
 2540                   Laundry and Dry Cleaning Services
 2542                   Operating Services (elevator inspection, garbage disposal, pest control)
 2543                   Maintenance and Repair (roads, utility systems)
 2544                   ADP Equipment and Computer Maintenance Contracts
 2553                   Miscellaneous Contractual Services for Indigent Veterans
 2560                   Medical Care Contracts and Agreements with Institutions
 2561                   Fee Medical and Nursing, on station
 2562                   Fee Medical and Nursing, off station
 2569                   Emergency Treatment of Veterans
 2570                   Fee Dental, off station
 2571                   Fee Dental, on station
 2575                   Other Contract Hospitalization (non-VA, non-Sharing)
 2576                   Consultants and Attendings
 2579                   Scarce Medical Specialist Contracts
 2580                   Non-Medical Contracts and Agreements with Institutions
 2581                   Non-Medical Contracts and Agreements with Individuals
 2586                   Sharing Medical Resources
 2590                   VA/Department of Defense (DOD) Sharing Agreements
 2598                   Contract Hospital and Outpatient Treatment (physician and professional charges)

Source: VA.



Data Refinements Explain Most of the Difference Between Rand Report and
Interim Findings Regarding the Effect of Contract Labor on Costs

Data refinements that RAND made explain most of the difference between RAND’s
report and interim findings on the effect of contract labor on VA facility costs,
according to the study authors. In its report, RAND’s finding regarding contract labor
was that an increased use of contract labor results in lower VA health care facility
costs. This finding differs from RAND’s interim finding that contract labor was
associated with higher, not lower, VA facility costs.

RAND study authors told us that the difference between the interim briefing and
report findings resulted from certain data and analytical refinements that RAND did
after the briefing. The authors stated that the major data refinement was to eliminate
the costs of medical resident stipends and benefits from the contract labor cost
measure in RAND’s final analysis because these costs are not funded through the VA
health care resource allocation system that RAND was examining. In fiscal year 2002,
VA expenditures for medical resident stipends and benefits were about $383 million.
The RAND study authors also told us that they made additional data edits to improve
accuracy for the report and that these edits may also have contributed to differences
in RAND’s contract labor finding. The study authors told us that a third factor also


4                                                                     GAO-03-579R VA Contract Labor
contributed to the difference between RAND’s interim and report finding on contract
labor. The authors stated that they analyzed contract labor’s impact in combination
with various measures of patient and health care facility characteristics. The interim
and report findings differed because RAND used different combinations of these
measures in its analysis of contract labor.

Rand’s Report Finding on Contract Labor Does Not Provide an Adequate
Basis for Making Competitive Sourcing Decisions

RAND’s report finding on contract labor does not provide an adequate basis for
making competitive sourcing decisions for several reasons. First, the study’s purpose
was not to evaluate competitive sourcing but instead to evaluate ways to improve
VA’s health care resource allocation system, according to the RAND study authors.4
These authors said RAND did not intend this finding on contract labor to be used to
determine whether contracting with the private sector is a cost-effective alternative
to using government employees. For example, RAND did not examine each contract
labor account to determine if contract labor for that service, such as laundry and dry
cleaning, resulted in higher or lower facility costs. This is important because the
effect on facility costs of using contract labor may vary by type of service contracted.
RAND did not examine the effect of each service but instead used the total dollar
amount of all contract labor services at each facility in its analysis.

In addition, VA contract labor data have limitations that may affect their usefulness
for analysis of the relationship between use of contract labor and facility health care
costs. One limitation is that the data may include some nonlabor costs and VA does
not know the extent to which nonlabor costs may be included in these accounts.
Another limitation is the relatively small proportion of VA labor costs that are for
contracting, 5.2 percent, and the small variation in contract labor use across VA. This
limits the ability to examine the association of contract labor with facility health care
costs. The RAND authors told us that, because of the relatively small amount of labor
contracted in VA and the relatively small amount of variation, VA should not make
policy decisions based solely on these data. The proportion of contract labor costs
varied by network ranging from 3.2 percent in Network 3 (Bronx) to 9.2 percent in
Network 5 (Baltimore) in fiscal year 2000. (See table 2.) In fiscal year 2000, the
amount of labor contracted totaled $619 million.




4
    See RAND 2003 for details on its analysis, including its examination of contract labor.


5                                                                         GAO-03-579R VA Contract Labor
Table 2: VA Contract Labor Costs, Fiscal Year 2000
           a
    Network (location)                        Contract labor costs                  Proportion of labor costs contracted
    1 (Boston)                                        $32,632,215                                                   5.2%
    2 (Albany)                                          13,091,491                                                  4.1%
    3 (Bronx)                                           23,567,097                                                  3.2%
    4 (Pittsburgh)                                      35,810,445                                                  6.0%
    5 (Baltimore)                                       36,056,219                                                  9.2%
    6 (Durham)                                          22,864,024                                                  4.1%
    7 (Atlanta)                                         32,618,472                                                  5.1%
    8 (Bay Pines)                                       29,936,565                                                  3.5%
    9 (Nashville)                                       18,862,213                                                  3.5%
    10 (Cincinnati)                                     34,084,148                                                  7.6%
    11 (Ann Arbor)                                      19,468,111                                                  3.9%
    12 (Chicago)                                        32,513,913                                                  5.0%
    13 (Minneapolis)                                    15,824,709                                                  4.7%
    14 (Lincoln)                                        10,903,448                                                  5.1%
    15 (Kansas City)                                    22,413,093                                                  5.1%
    16 (Jackson)                                        43,792,398                                                  4.8%
    17 (Dallas)                                         24,552,854                                                  4.8%
    18 (Phoenix)                                        20,737,333                                                  4.8%
    19 (Denver)                                         23,645,796                                                  7.9%
    20 (Portland)                                       29,245,793                                                  5.8%
    21 (San Francisco)                                  44,718,978                                                  7.5%
    22 (Long Beach)                                     51,513,721                                                  7.3%
    National total                                   $618,853,035                                                   5.2%

Sources: VA and RAND.

Note: At our request, RAND calculated the network proportion of contract labor costs by aggregating totals from VA health
care facilities to the network level and dividing total contract labor costs by total labor costs. By contrast, the network
proportion of contract labor costs in RAND’s report represented the average of each facility’s cost in the network. As a result,
the numbers in this table differ somewhat from the numbers in that report.
a
VA had 22 health care networks in fiscal year 2000. It combined networks 13 and 14 in fiscal year 2002 and currently has 21
health care networks.


Agency and Other Comments

We provided a draft of this report to VA and to RAND for comment. In oral
comments, an official in VA’s Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs informed
us that VA agreed with our findings. The RAND study authors told us that RAND
agreed with our findings and they provided technical comments that we incorporated
as appropriate.

                                                            -----

We are sending copies of this report to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and others
who are interested. We will make copies available to others upon request. In
addition, the report is available at no charge on GAO’s Web site at
http://www.gao.gov.




6                                                                                       GAO-03-579R VA Contract Labor
If you or your staff have questions about this report, please contact me at (202) 512-
7101 or James C. Musselwhite at (202) 512-7259. Thomas A. Walke and Daniel
Montinez made key contributions to this report.

Sincerely yours,




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




7                                                          GAO-03-579R VA Contract Labor
                             Related GAO Products

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

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

VA Laundry Service: Consolidations and Competitive Sourcing Could Save
Millions. GAO-01-61. Washington, D.C.: November 30, 2000.

Inadequate Oversight of Laundry Facility at the Department of Veterans Affairs,
Albany, New York, Medical Facility. GAO-01-207R. Washington, D.C.:
November 30, 2000.

VA Health Care: Expanding Food Service Initiatives Could Save Millions. GAO-01-
64. Washington, D.C: November 30, 2000.




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8                                                      GAO-03-579R VA Contract Labor
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