Tester sounds off on VA reform

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) on Wednesday slammed his fellow lawmakers for dragging their feet on legislation to fix the embattled Veterans Affairs Department.

His conference committee of 28 House and Senate lawmakers “is in its fourth week now and there isn’t much to show for it” in the way of a compromise, Tester said during a hearing of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

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He said that some lawmakers have “balked at the cost” of the overhaul, though he noted roughly 800 soldiers have recently been sent to Iraq to advise government security forces there and “I didn’t hear one person talk about the cost.”

“I never heard anybody talk about the costs ... or offsets for the cost" when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were approved, Tester said.

His comments are the latest sign that negotiations over the reform bill are in danger of derailing. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Tuesday said House GOP members were holding up the bill.

Senate lawmakers, including some Republicans, want to fund any final package with emergency spending that would add to the budget deficit, while House members have said they want to pay for the bill with budget cuts.

Tester also said he found it “very frustrating” that conference committee members have suggested that a solution to the problems in the VA’s healthcare system is to schedule more doctor's appointments.

“That will not solve the problem,” he said, adding that Montana has a VA physician shortage.

Tester said he was concerned that the bill might end up “taking a step backwards for veterans healthcare.”

“That cannot happen,” he said, urging lawmakers to “step up to the plate."