Healthcare Business News

Competing new VA bills in Congress cloud prospects for any deal

By Virgil Dickson
Posted: July 24, 2014 - 6:45 pm ET

The chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs' committees have released new competing proposals on how to address the waitlist woes currently plaguing the VA. The House version provides $10 billion in immediate emergency VA funding, while the Senate version would cost $25 billion over the next three years, and is only partially offset by $3.3 billion in savings from other areas of VA.

But time is quickly running out to act on either proposal before Congress adjourns for its traditional August recess. What's more, angry finger-pointing on both sides Thursday seemed to cloud the chances for a compromise between the two new proposals.

Both would strengthen the VA secretary's ability to fire staff, provide additional funds to purchase private care, and enter into leases to expand the department's physical capacity around the country.

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Rep. Jeff Miller, (R-Fla.), called a meeting of the House-Senate Veterans Affairs' conference committee Thursday and invited media to the meeting to highlight his proposed fix. The conference committee had been trying to reconcile existing competing VA measures in the House and Senate.

All prior conference committee hearings had been closed to the public. But Democrats largely didn't attend Thursday's open session, leading to name-calling and finger-pointing from the likes of House Speaker John Boehner and Senate VA Committee Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), that seemed to put chances for a compromise in jeopardy. Sanders did not attend Miller's meeting, and the only Democrat present was Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona.

“I thought four weeks was long enough for us to negotiate behind closed doors, and that we actually show the American people that the House is willing to put money forward to pay for what's going on,” Miller said. “There's been some attempts to make it appear the House didn't want to pay for any of this.”

Miller's plan gives the department $10 billion of emergency funds and allows the agency to contract out care and enter into new leasing agreements. Once the funds run out, Congress would go through the standard appropriation process to provide additional funds. Miller's bill does not include any offsets to pay for the $10 billion in new spending. Calling it emergency funding provides political cover for some of the more conservative members of Congress to go along with the plan, despite its lack of offsets.

The Miller proposal allows Congress to track how the $10 billion is used, and see if wait times go down as a result of the funding. An ongoing concern is that the VA's management, not a lack of funding, have largely caused the current crisis.

“If we throw money at this without oversight, not only would we have failed the tax payer, we would have, most importantly, failed veterans,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, (R-Okla.) during the meeting.

Sanders called a news conference a short time later, where he and the absent Democrats said they did not attend Miller's meeting because it appeared Miller was offering a “take-it-or-leave-it” deal without being willing to hear other ideas.

Sanders introduced his own proposal that would achieve many of the same goals outlined by Miller, but cost $25 billion over three years. Sanders said that amount is less than Congressional Budget Office estimates of $35 billion to fund the current Senate VA proposal, and lower than the $44 billion price tag over five years proposed in a current House bill.

The VA, for its part, has requested $17.6 billion to hire thousands of doctors, nurses and other health professionals, lease new facilities and upgrade its computers. It says all those resources are needed to help reduce wait times.

Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have said they don't trust that figure because the department hasn't provided an adequate breakdown of why that amount is needed, and as such, the request hasn't been included in the proposals circulating the Hill.

Neither Miller nor Sanders released full texts of their proposals, so it's unclear, beyond their cost, what material differences there may be between the two suggested fixes.

Miller wants to call a vote Monday on his proposal by the conference committee, so that both the House and Senate can sign off on a bill that can be sent to the president before Aug 1. But Sanders and Democrat lawmakers say they only want to vote on a measure that incorporates input from both sides of the political aisle.

Follow Virgil Dickson on Twitter: @MHvdickson

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