Valdosta Daily Times

National, International News

July 12, 2014

Lawmakers seek lower price for bill on vets’ care

WASHINGTON — Stung by sticker shock, members of Congress are scrambling to lower the cost of a bill to fix veterans’ health care amid a growing uproar over long waits for appointments and falsification of records to cover up the delays at Veterans Affairs hospitals.

At the same time, deficit hawks fear that letting veterans turn more to providers outside the VA for health care could cost far more if Congress, under pressure from powerful veterans groups, decides to renew that program rather than let it expire in two years.

Lawmakers in both parties agree on the need to reform the Veterans Affairs Department’s health care network — the largest in the country — following reports of veterans dying while awaiting appointments at VA hospitals or clinics. The resulting election-year firestorm forced VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign in May. A half-dozen other VA officials have resigned or retired since then.

The VA’s inspector general has confirmed that at least 35 veterans died while awaiting appointments at the agency’s Phoenix medical center alone, but he has yet to report on the results of investigations into whether delays in treatment were responsible for any of the deaths.

The latest analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates a Senate-passed bill would cost $35 billion through 2016 to build new clinics, hire doctors and make it easier for veterans who can’t get prompt appointments with VA doctors to get outside care. The CBO put the price tag of a similar measure passed by the House at $44 billion.

More troubling for lawmakers are long-term costs. As currently designed, the legislation would relieve a big backlog of veterans awaiting appointments by letting them seek care outside the VA system, but that the expansion would expire after two years. Fiscal conservatives worried about swelling deficits fear lawmakers will yield to inevitable pressure from veterans to keep it.

“Once a benefit is provided to a large group of people it is hard to take it away, so there will be intense pressure on Congress to continue the benefit,” said Ed Lorenzen of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a Washington-based group that advocates for lower deficits.

“I believe in choice and I hope that we will be able to continue to allow the policy change for choice to continue beyond the two years,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “But what we’re faced with now is trying to erase the backlog that is plaguing VA and preventing veterans from getting timely access to their earned benefit of health care.”

Once fully in place, the provision granting veterans easier access to private care could cost the government about $38 billion a year — almost as much as the $44 billion the government now spends annually on medical care for veterans, the budget office says.

Miller and other lawmakers have questioned the CBO estimates, saying the budget agency used faulty assumptions and did not account for provisions that would save money.

“I believe we can come up with very strong legislation at a lower cost than the initial CBO estimate,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate veterans panel.

Miller and Sanders co-chair a House-Senate conference committee that is trying to negotiate a compromise bill to address long patient wait times and other problems at the Veterans Affairs Department. Bills passed last month by each house would require the VA to pay private providers to treat qualifying veterans who can’t get prompt appointments at the VA’s nearly 1,000 hospitals and outpatient clinics or who live at least 40 miles from one of them.

The bill also would make it easier to fire or demote senior agency officials and end bonuses to senior VA executives based on meeting patient scheduling goals — a practice investigators say led some officials to create phony waiting lists to “game” the system.

The main obstacle is the bill’s price tag — and how to pay it. The Democratic-controlled Senate treats the issue as an emergency and would allow virtually unlimited spending. The House bill, written largely by Republicans, requires Congress to appropriate money each year under existing budget caps for the overhaul. The cost would have to be covered through either higher taxes or cuts in other programs.

Costs also could spike depending on the rate VA pays private providers, the CBO said. The Senate bill would allow veterans who can’t get timely VA appointments to see doctors listed as providers under Medicare or the military’s TRICARE program. The House bill does not specify who would provide the care or the rates they would be paid.

More than 8 million of the nation’s 21 million veterans are now enrolled in VA health care, although only about 6.5 million seek VA treatment every year.   The CBO analysts said the VA now covers about 30 percent, or an average $5,200, of those veterans’ annual health care costs, excluding long-term care.

By making it easier to get outside care, the House and Senate bills would encourage millions of veterans who currently do not receive VA care to get it, the CBO said. Millions of currently enrolled veterans also can be expected to seek a bigger portion of their health care coverage through VA, the budget office said.

Whatever the final price tag, lawmakers also must agree on how to pay the bill’s costs.

Congress will need to “go outside the VA to look for offsets” to pay for expanded care, Miller said. Sanders called the situation a crisis that deserved an emergency response — budget language for borrowing the money.

“Nobody ever said this is going to be easy,” Miller said. “The Senate is locked down on it being all emergency funds. The House has a very different tack.”

The VA bill “is not going to be paid for by cutting education or food stamps,” Sanders said in a speech on the Senate floor. “That ain’t going to happen.”

 

1
Text Only
National, International News
  • Dollar Tree-Family Do_Rich copy.jpg Dollar Tree buys Family Dollar

    The fight for penny pinchers is intensifying.

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • APTOPIX Mideast Israe_Rich copy.jpg Gaza war rages despite Hamas, Israel truce pledges

    Israel and Hamas launched new attacks Sunday in the raging Gaza war, despite going back and forth over proposals for a temporary halt to nearly three weeks of fighting ahead of a major Muslim holiday.
    The failure to reach even a brief humanitarian lull in the fighting illustrated the difficulties in securing a more permanent truce as the sides remain far apart on their terms.

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • AP81072904918 copy.jpg Today in History for Tuesday, July 29, 2014

    Today is Tuesday, July 29, the 210th day of 2014. There are 155 days left in the year.

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • AP4507280123 copy.jpg Today in History for Monday, July 28, 2014
    Today is Monday, July 28, the 209th day of 2014. There are 156 days left in the year. 
     

    July 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • Tentative deal reached on VA reform

    The chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees have reached a tentative agreement on a plan to fix a veterans’ health program scandalized by long patient wait times and falsified records covering up delays.

    July 27, 2014

  • United States-Libya_Rich.jpg US evacuates embassy in Libya amid clashes

    The United States shuttered its embassy in Libya on Saturday and evacuated its diplomats to neighboring Tunisia under U.S. military escort as fighting intensified between rival militias. Secretary of State John Kerry said “free-wheeling militia violence” prompted the move.

    July 27, 2014 1 Photo

  • AP9607270692 copy.jpg Today in History for Sunday, July 27, 2014

    Today is Sunday, July 27, the 208th day of 2014. There are 157 days left in the year.

    July 27, 2014 1 Photo

  • No ticket for Shrek over loud musical, chief says

    A musical being performed in a New Hampshire park has drawn some noise complaints, but the deputy police chief says he’s “not giving Shrek a ticket.”

    July 26, 2014

  • Arizona Execution Dru_Rich copy.jpg Arizona’s McCain: Execution was torture

    U.S. Sen. John McCain says the execution of an Arizona inmate that lasted two hours was torture.

    July 26, 2014 1 Photo

  • Ukraine Plane_Rich copy.jpg US: Russia firing into Ukraine

    Russia is launching artillery attacks from its soil on Ukrainian troops and preparing to move heavier weaponry across the border, the U.S. and Ukraine charged Friday in what appeared to be an ominous escalation of the crisis.
    Russia accused Washington of lying and charged Ukraine with firing across the border on a Russian village. It also toughened its economic measures against Ukraine by banning dairy imports.

    July 26, 2014 1 Photo

Top News
Poll

Do you agree with the millage rate increases?

Yes. We need to maintain services
No. Services should have been cut.
     View Results