WASHINGTON – With Congress scheduled to recess in a week, the chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees offered competing proposals Thursday to fix a veterans' health care program scandalized by long patient wait times and falsified records covering up the delays.
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Both proposals would scale back separate House- and Senate-passed bills after lawmakers in both parties expressed shock at price tags totaling more than $35 billion. The new proposals would still allow veterans to go to private doctors if they face long waits for appointments at VA hospitals and clinics, or if they live more than 40 miles from a VA site.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate panel, made the first move, announcing a proposal that would cost about $25 billion over three years to lease new clinics, hire thousands of doctors and nurses, and make it easier for veterans who can't get prompt appointments with VA doctors to get outside care.
The proposed price tag is $10 billion less than a bill passed by the Senate last month and nearly $20 billion less than a House-backed measure.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House veterans panel, countered hours later with a proposal that would require only $10 billion in emergency spending, with a promise of more spending in future years under the normal congressional budget process. Miller's bill would keep most of the provisions in the Senate-passed bill and also would authorize about $100 for the Department of Veterans Affairs to address shortfalls in the current budget year.
Miller announced his plan at a hastily scheduled meeting of House and Senate negotiators who have been working on the veterans bill for more than a month. Sanders skipped the meeting, as did all Democrats on the negotiating committee except one, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz.
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House Speaker John Boehner called Democrats' nonappearance at the meeting "shameful" and said that if President Barack Obama cares about America's veterans, "he needs to pick up his phone out in California and tell Senate Democrats to get to work."
Despite the partisan divide, Miller said talks on the veterans had not collapsed and that he remains optimistic a deal can be reached before Congress adjourns next week until September.
Sanders called Miller's proposal a "take-it-or-leave-it gambit" that showed a lack of good faith.
"We don't need more speeches and posturing. We need serious negotiations — 24/7 if necessary — to resolve our differences in order to pass critical legislation," Sanders said.
Miller said his proposal was merely "a public offer" that allows everyone to see what negotiators have been discussing in private for weeks.
"I am prepared keep negotiating for as long as it takes to reach a deal, and I hope Senate Democrats will work with me to address VA's delays in care and accountability crises," Miller said
The Obama administration says it needs about $17.6 billion to hire thousands of doctors, nurses and other health professionals, lease new facilities and upgrade its computers to reduce a backlog of veterans awaiting care at VA hospitals and clinics. The administration's request does not include money to allow more veterans to go to private doctors to avoid long waits for VA care. Expansion of private care was the biggest cost in the bills approved by Congress.
Republicans complained that Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson's budget request was thinly documented. Miller told Gibson on Thursday he was surprised that such a large request was made in a slim, three-page memo.
The request "makes it very difficult for us to do our job" Miller told Gibson at a hearing of the House veterans' panel.
Gibson said the request reflected his judgment about what the department needs to address current problems.
The VA request includes $8.2 billion to hire 1,500 doctors and thousands of nurses and other medical and mental health professionals; $6 billion for construction projects to improve safety or patient access; $1.2 billion for computer enhancements; and $400 million for more staff to deal with the agency's backlog of benefits claims.