With just two weeks to go before the August recess, House and Senate negotiators are struggling to reach a deal on legislation intended to improve healthcare services at the Veterans Affairs Department.
Lawmakers have described the bill as must-pass legislation, given the monthslong waits veterans endured for doctor’s appointments, but have begun to take partisan shots at one another as a House-Senate conference has stalled.
On Wednesday, Veterans Affairs acting Secretary Sloan Gibson introduced a new problem into the already difficult talks by announcing his department needed $17.6 billion in new funds over the next three years to meet growing patient demand.
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said the request should be included in the existing talks, which are already hung up over differences in how to pay for the Senate bill’s $35 billion in costs.
In a floor speech, Sanders asked colleagues to be “mindful” that fixing the VA would be a “very, very expensive process.”
He said he recognized the new spending request represents a “very big price tag” but said it was imperative to fix the VA once and for all, so soldiers fighting wars are given care and the United States doesn’t have the same crisis again.
But Republicans voiced serious concerns over giving the Veterans Affairs Department more money, given reports outlining serious problems at the agency.
Separate administration reports have found that veterans waited months for care, despite an internal goal of limiting wait times to 14 days. The reports also found VA officials sought to cover up the long waiting times.
“If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last few months, it’s that we can’t trust VA’s numbers,” Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), the chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in a statement responding to the new funding request.
He said “it would be an act of budgetary malpractice to blindly sign off on this request,” and that, if department “truly needs” the $17.6 billion, past VA administrators are “either incompetent, disingenuous or both.”
Gibson made his request for new funding at a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing, where he said the funds would be used to hire 10,000 clinical health staffers, including 1,500 new doctors.
“We understand the seriousness of the problems we face,” he said in his first Capitol Hill appearance since taking over at the department after the resignation of former Secretary Eric ShinsekiEric Ken ShinsekiFormer VA secretaries propose National Warrior Call Day to raise military suicide awareness Why aren't more Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Biden's Cabinet? Biden VA pick faces 'steep learning curve' at massive agency MORE. “We own them. We’re taking decisive action to begin to resolve them.”
Republicans responded that Congress had already been generous with the department.
Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) said lawmakers repeatedly gave Shinseki more money as he promised his agency would do better.
“This sounds so similar to what we’ve heard over the years. I need more money. I need to be bigger, faster, grander. I need a bigger bureaucracy. I need to hire more people, and on and on and on,” he said.
Johanns argued the VA needed more competition from private healthcare providers, not more money.
Gibson argued that the additional funds would help ensure the VA had one support person for every specialty care provider. He said the standard in the private sector was to have 3.5 support people for every specialty care provider.
Even before the VA request, House and Senate negotiators faced a tall order in completing their talks. While both chambers easily approved bills to address the VA issue, scores from the Congressional Budget Office put high price tags on their efforts.
The two bills would boost accountability at the department by providing the VA secretary new authority to fire incompetent executives and would grant veterans more access to private medical providers in certain cases.
Allowing veterans to go to private care helps drive up the cost of the two bills. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office last week said the Senate’s VA overhaul would cost $35 billion over the next two years and $38 billion a year starting in 2016.
House Republicans say the costs of a final bill should be offset with other spending cuts.
Senate Democrats would pass the bill as emergency spending, with costs added to the deficit. They have support in this position from at least some Senate Republicans, who voted to waive a budget point of order objecting to the bill when it was approved by the upper chamber.
Tempers began to flare this week when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) blamed House Republicans for the delay.
“We’re having a little trouble getting the House to help us complete the conference,” he said Tuesday. “You know ... just because we want something done when we’re in conference doesn’t mean it gets done.” Miller blasted Reid for “purposely injecting politics into what has been a politics-free process until now.”
Sanders this week acknowledged the problems over paying for the bill are hurdles but insisted lawmakers could find a deal.
He said it was still his “hope and expectation” to get the conference done before lawmakers leave Washington.
This story was updated at 8:30 p.m.