Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., , speaks to reporters in the Capitol on Wednesday. (J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press)
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A push by Veterans Affairs Department officials for billions in new funding to hire more doctors may upend congressional efforts for a wide-reaching VA reform package that appeared all but finished just a few weeks ago.
On Wednesday, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said he wants to include portions of VA’s new $17.6 billion funding request in a larger veterans omnibus bill that is already being finalized by a House-Senate conference committee.
That measure already comes with a $35 billion price tag that senators have questioned and that House members have insisted must be paid for with budget offsets.
Sanders would not put a cost estimate on his idea for a new bill, but said he expected all of the items would cost far less than $35 billion — a figure he noted both chambers have already initially approved.
“Nobody gets everything they want,” he said, promising cuts to what VA has asked for. “But I think we can get that number down, and believe we can still put together a strong bill.”
But House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., has already publicly balked at the new funding request, saying Congress has received few details on how the money will be spent.
“I am committed to giving VA the resources it needs to provide our veterans with the care and benefits they have earned,” he said in a statement last week. “But if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last few months, it’s that we can’t trust VA’s numbers.”
In testimony before the Senate, Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said the $17.6 billion would be used to hire about 10,000 clinicians over the next three years and secure more space for medical appointments through leases, VA facility improvements and new construction.
He insisted the moves would help cut down on veterans’ medical appointment wait times not just in the short-term but also for years to come.
Gibson is scheduled to brief House lawmakers on the funding request Thursday morning.
Congress has only a few legislative days left before an extended summer break begins Aug. 2. Any work left undone would not be finalized until mid-September at the earliest, and more likely would sit until after the November mid-term elections.
That gives the veterans’ legislation conference committee about a week to not only finalize the new funding plans but also find a compromise on offsets to pay for the measure — issues that have remained unresolved since June.
Sanders said not getting the work done before the August break would be “a disgrace.”
“We should be able to come together on this,” he said. “If there’s a will, we can do it. If there’s not, we will fail.”