VA reform effort turns into a political fight in Congress

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.


By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 24, 2014

This story has been updated.

WASHINGTON — Weeks of simmering, closed-door disagreement in Congress over how to fix the Department of Veterans Affairs erupted into a public political fight Thursday that threatened to derail any chance of a final reform bill this summer.

House and Senate leaders broke from negotiations aimed at compromise and instead unveiled dueling bills that differed widely on how much to spend on the deeply dysfunctional federal agency. The moves led to both chambers lobbing allegations of “moving the goal post” and thwarting the democratic process.

A month of negotiations has not bridged the divide between House veterans affairs chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who remains skeptical that more spending will help the VA, and his counterpart Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who believes the only fix includes spending billions on hiring more medical staff.

Now, Congress has just one week before going on a monthlong recess in August and the time to reach a compromise on VA reform before fall is slipping away.

“I’ve got a very full schedule. I don’t know what Sen. Sanders’ schedule is, but we will just have to wait to see,” Miller said when asked if he would meet with the senator. “He’s put something out, we’ve put something out and we’ll get back together Monday if he wants to do so to vote on something.”

Miller said he made his reform proposal public Thursday and called a meeting of House and Senate lawmakers involved in negotiations — without Sanders’ consent — because no agreement had been reached since June and he wanted the public to know he supported some new spending to reform the VA.

His proposal provides an additional $102 million this year to the department and a $10 billion emergency funding “down payment” that could be used over the next few years to expand the availability of private care for veterans who cannot get appointments at VA hospitals and clinics, according to a summary.

Under the proposal, any other future money for patching the VA would be required to go throughout the typical budget process in Congress, which begins with a proposal from the White House and requires passage of an appropriations bill by both chambers. Such spending bills have regularly failed due to partisan gridlock.

Sanders called the meeting and proposal a “take-it-or-leave-it gambit” by Miller to push through his agenda and circumvent the House-Senate conference committee called last month to hammer out a compromise bill.

“We have put good faith offers on the table again and again and tried to meet the Republicans more than half way,” he said. “The good faith we have shown has not been reciprocated.”

Sanders, a moderate who says the VA is essentially working, called a hasty press conference Thursday afternoon following the moves by Miller and introduced his own reform proposal and offering a new round of talks.

“I am prepared to be here this weekend. I am prepared to be here tomorrow evening to start serious negotiations,” Sanders said.

The senator said his bill will cost $23 billion to $25 billion, and will provide hiring and recruitment of more doctors, nurses and medical staff at VA facilities. The proposal is also packed with funding for medical staff recruitment programs, in-state tuition assistance for post-9/11 veterans, expansion of survivor benefits, and sexual assault trauma treatment.

Estimates on what it will take to fix the VA vary widely.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson testified before Congress July 16 that the department needs an extra $17.6 billion in funding between now and 2017 to solve widespread issues with health care delays and staff misconduct.

The Congressional Budget Office found that the cost of reforms — especially expanding access to outside, private care for veterans — are difficult to calculate but could eventually cost up to $50 billion per year.

The VA scandal began in April at a VA hospital in Phoenix where a whistleblower doctor alleged 40 veterans may have died while languishing on a secret wait list kept by staff.

A series of audits have since proven such problems are widespread among the 1,700 hospitals and clinics that serve nearly 9 million vets each year.

In the most recent published statistics, over 636,000 veterans have been waiting over a month to get care at VA facilities.

Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla.