By Martin Matishak - 06/24/14 04:46 PM EDT
Republican lawmakers tasked with finalizing legislation to reform the Veterans Affairs Department slammed an independent cost estimate of the revamp on Tuesday.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated the Senate bill, passed earlier this month, would cost $35 billion, and up to $50 billion if the measure was fully implemented after two years.
The budget office said a similar measure adopted by the House would cost $44 billion.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-S.C.), the ranking member on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said it would be hard for lawmakers to discuss the difference between the two bills when the cost figures are “grotesquely out of line.”
He asked his colleagues if they thought the CBO report was “reflective of anything sane.”
Both bills grant new powers to the VA secretary to fire senior executives, though the Senate version includes an appeal process for dismissed employees. They also eliminate bonuses for managers, incentives lawmakers believe led to widespread manipulation of patient waiting times and other data.
But the upper chamber’s draft called for the construction or leasing of 26 new VA facilities across the country. It also contains a two-year pilot program that allows veterans to see private providers if they live more than 40 miles from an agency clinic.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, has said the bill would cost $2 billion and would be paid for through emergency funds.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who hammered out the Senate version of the legislation with Sanders, called the estimate "wildly inaccurate" if looked at from a "rational viewpoint."
However, more conservative House members signaled that the bipartisan panel must come up with a way to pay for the reforms contained in the bills.
Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) said the biggest issue impacting the VA “isn’t lack of funding, but a lack of accountability.”
Rep. Phil Roe (R-Texas) said any overhaul must be “fiscally responsible” and designed to change the culture at the VA “or we’re just going to make it worse.”
Sanders acknowledged in his opening statement that there would be costs associated with the final bill but that the crisis facing veterans constitutes an “emergency.”
"The simple truth of the matter is that the VA needs more doctors, more nurses, more mental health providers, and, in certain parts of the country, more space for a growing patient population," he said.