Lawmakers may have gotten past their partisan divides to pass VA reform legislation – just in time before their August recess.
On June 24, congressional veterans affairs committee members met in conference. The meeting itself was a significant, if not, historic event because it was the first time in 15 years that committee members from both the house and the senate had come together to deal with a particular issue. Democratic Rep. Julia Brownley of California called it a “pivotal moment for the VA and our veterans.”
One month after Brownley conveyed those words, it seems lawmakers are fumbling the opportunity for that pivotal moment. After several failed negotiations and a failed motion by Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., to adopt the senate approved version of H.R. 3230, which was narrowly defeated by House Republicans in a 205-207 vote last week, Congress is cutting it close on time.
Yesterday, the VA committees chairmen announced that they have finally reached an agreement on a legislative package that would garner enough support in both chambers to pass.
The agreement includes $17 billion in new spending for medical care, the hiring of new doctors, nurses and specialists and construction projects and leases for at least 27 new facilities in more than a dozen states. Of that total, $12 billion is new, emergency spending and $5 billion will come from spending cuts across the VA system. Most of the money, $10 billion, will be set aside to help pay for medical care provided to veterans outside the VA system.
Both parties in Congress want to reduce patient wait times at VA hospitals. The parties are split over how to fund the billions of dollars in added costs.
Republicans want the new spending to be offset by cuts elsewhere in the U.S. budget, while the Democratic-controlled Senate has called for emergency funding.
An audit released July 17 showed more than 170,000 veterans hadn’t received an appointment or were currently waiting longer than 90 days for care.
During last months conference meeting, the Senate’s top Republican negotiator, Richard Burr of North Carolina, asked his fellow lawmakers if the CBO product (Burr was referring to the initial cost estimates for the bill) was “reflective of anything sane?” Burr said it would be impossible to figure out what to do until better numbers were available.
Although Sen. John McCain concurred with Burr over the CBO scoring of the bill (CBO estimates were higher in June than current estimates), calling it “widely inaccurate.” The Republican senator, a veteran himself, sided with Democrats when he said the VA issues were in fact an emergency.
Senate committee chairman Bernard Sanders also acknowledged the VA needs more doctors, nurses, and mental health professionals and pointed to the bipartisan support for a bill that addressed those needs, which he and McCain had worked on together in the immediate wake of the scandal. “The Senate made it crystal clear that the current crisis in the VA is truly an emergency – and should be paid for through emergency funding,” Sanders said.
A majority of Republicans during the June 24 conference pointed to the organizational culture and bureaucracy at the VA as the root causes of its current woes. Burr said the culture at the VA must change first before more money is given to the department.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Co., also pointed to the VA’s Office Of Inspector General, which has labeled the wait time issues as systemic and echoed the Republican sentiment. “Throwing money at the VA is not going to solve the problems,” he said.
House committee chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fl., spoke with the press after last month’s meeting and acknowledged that “time was of the essence,” in moving forward to address the VA’s needs. At the time, the congressman didn’t want to commit to any specific time frames to avoid giving the impression of failure if a compromise wasn’t reached by a specific date.
I would hardly call a month of partisan bickering a success, especially after the amount of veterans affected by the widespread wrongdoing and lack of integrity by some VA employees had come to light. It has been reported by whistleblowers, that some veterans may have died waiting for care that never came. If veterans dying isn’t emergency enough for Congress to put the partisan bullshit aside, i don’t know what is.
At what point do we begin to ask: are Congress’ partisan ideals, in the words of Sen. Burr, “reflective of anything sane?”