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Quick passage of VA reform bill in doubt

Jun. 25, 2014 - 10:53AM   |  
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Lawmakers are moving as fast as they can to pass a new Veterans Affairs reform bill. Unfortunately for supporters, that doesn’t guarantee it’ll be finished soon.

House and Senate members held their first conference committee meeting Tuesday to hash out differences between the chambers’ reform proposals, measures that would dramatically expand veterans’ access to private care and make it easier to fire underperforming VA executives.

Earlier this month, Senate leaders had pledged to have the legislation on the president’s desk by July 4. But on Tuesday, lawmakers on the 28-member negotiating panel said they still have too many questions about the costs of the proposals to pass anything in coming days.

Most of the issues center on Congressional Budget Office estimates of plans to allow veterans to visit private-sector doctors if they face long wait times for VA medical appointments, or if they live 40 miles or more from the closest VA facilities.

CBO said the Senate’s version of that plan could cost $50 billion a year, and the House version $44 billion over the next five years.

But senators on the panel called those projections “ludicrous” and wildly off base.

“It’s impossible for us to start an intelligent conversation on what we put in legislation when we have numbers this grotesquely out of line,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

He said CBO projections that millions of veterans would suddenly drop private health insurance and become a drain on the system confused the true costs of the bill, and urged a new financial analysis.

Senate bill co-sponsors Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and John McCain, R-Ariz., have said they believe the expanded private care options may result in no new costs for the department, pointing to unexpended funds already in the VA budget. Other lawmakers have said they expect the true cost to total a few billion dollars, not the tens of billions CBO projects.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and co-chair of the conference committee, said that finalizing the compromise bill will hinge on getting better cost projections, since House conferees have insisted that any new spending be offset.

Although the conference committee will continue negotiations in coming days on the measure, Miller would not give reporters a time frame for when the work may be finished.

He also said that finding an offset for any funding increases will be difficult inside the VA budget. Senators on the conference panel have pushed for an emergency appropriation instead, arguing the changes should not be held up by budget wrangling.

Both chambers are on break next week for the July Fourth holiday, and expected to break for most of August and September in advance of the November elections.

That gives the committee just a few weeks to iron out the cost questions — along with provisions related to in-state tuition rates for student veterans and sexual assault counseling included in the Senate bill — and get the compromise measure before the chambers for a vote.

Both Miller and Sanders said they’re still confident they can get a bill finished quickly. Meanwhile, VA officials have promised to expand private care options for waiting veterans within existing authorities, in response to the recent care delay scandals.

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