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Posts in "Veterans Affairs"
July 31, 2014
The Senate overwhelmingly passed the agreement to address the Veterans Affairs health care crisis just a few hours before the August recess.
The 91-3 vote sends the bill to the president for his signature. The only opponents were Republicans Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Bob Corker of Tennessee.
“This is the beginning of the beginning of our effort to help those men and women who have defended our nation with honor and dignity. And we owe them that,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on the Senate floor Tuesday night. Full story
July 29, 2014
The Senate confirmed former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald as the new secretary of Veterans Affairs on Tuesday, with a $17 billion deal to slash VA wait times expected to pass later this week.
The 97-0 vote reflected broad bipartisan support for McDonald’s pick. Republicans including Speaker John A. Boehner and Rob Portman, both from McDonald’s native Ohio, immediately backed McDonald, who support Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.
July 28, 2014
Sen. Bernard Sanders didn’t seem a likely suspect to bridge Washington’s toxic partisan divide and cut one of the most significant deals in years.
But the Senate’s lone socialist and a potential 2016 presidential candidate did just that — negotiating a deal over the weekend to tackle wait times at the Department of Veterans Affairs and clear his biggest legislative test since he took over the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee gavel last year.
The Vermont independent’s compromise with House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., would provide $17 billion to the agency with $5 billion offset with savings and fees elsewhere. In a brief interview after a Monday news conference announcing the deal, Sanders reflected on the difficulty of the deal.
“I learned that it’s very, very, very hard; that there are a lot of moving parts; that there a lot of people you have to pay attention to,” he said. “In this case with the VA, the administration, the Democrats, with Republicans and a whole lot of individuals within those entities. It’s tough stuff.”
So often, Sanders has been on the outside looking in, railing against the powers that be — like when he gave an eight-and-a-half hour speech on the Senate floor in 2010 torching the extension of tax cuts as “Robin Hood in reverse.” The speech, which generated widespread attention and is also known as the “filiBernie,” was published as a book in 2011.
But Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist and caucuses with the Democratic Party, said he wants to legislate, not just pontificate. He attributes his negotiating skills to his time as the first socialist mayor of Burlington, Vt.
“When I took office, people who supported me on the city council, we had two out of 13 and I had to make things happen while being in the minority, so I do know how to negotiate fairly,” Sanders said. “Negotiation is part of the political process. I certainly have been prepared to do that since day one.”
Asked how he balances his progressive views with his role as a legislator, Sanders said there is no recipe. “I do the best I can,” he said.
With regard to the VA, Sanders pushed hard for expanding the agency’s own facilities — and wanted to ensure that veterans weren’t used as pawns in the ongoing spending fight between the parties.
“By which I mean [Republicans would say], ‘Yeah, we will fund veterans health care, but we will cut Head Start or education,” Sanders said. “That I did not want to see, and that did not happen.’”
Sanders repeatedly said he believes that most Americans think taking care of veterans is part of the cost of war. And he had an advantage, given that failure to act would have been bad politically for both parties.
During the news conference, Sanders was quick to note how rare a deal — any deal — is in Washington.
“The United States Congress today, in my view, is a dysfunctional institution,” he said. “There is major issue after major issue where virtually nothing is happening.
“The important point is we are here together having done something that happens quite rarely in the United States Congress,” Sanders said. “I am proud of what we have accomplished.”
The deal is one of the biggest expansions of government since the GOP takeover of the House, with $10 billion to launch a program to allow veterans to seek private medical care if they have unreasonable wait times or if they live more than 40 miles from a facility.
The compromise also includes $5 billion for additional doctors, nurses and upgrades to facilities, although not nearly as much as Sanders wanted.
“I think we are [to] going have to be back discussing these very same issues sooner than I would liked to have seen,” he said.
But the deal also included funding to extend a scholarship to include surviving spouses of members of the armed forces who died in the line of duty, a bipartisan provision to let all veterans qualify for in-state tuition under the Post-9/11 GI bill, and language that extends an about-to-expire program that provides housing for veterans who are struggling with traumatic brain injuries.
Sanders and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who co-sponsored a veterans measure that passed the Senate last month, heaped praise on each other.
“John and I see the world very, very differently,” Sanders said. “But John made it clear that it was vitally important that this legislation be passed; that it would be an obscenity if it were not passed by the time we got out of here for recess.”
McCain reciprocated in a statement of his own, saying Sanders’ “tenacity and passion on behalf of America’s veterans cannot be questioned.”
The deal nearly didn’t happen, after talks collapsed last week over Republican objections to adding funds funds for doctors, nurses and facility improvements.
Miller, who had acting VA Secretary Sloan D. Gibson before his panel on July 24, had argued it made no sense to provide the agency funding for that purpose because it already had job openings that it couldn’t fill.
Miller offered Sanders $10 billion for veterans to seek private care, as well as for leases and authorization for 27 new major VA medical facilities. But Sanders rebuffed the offer and rejected calls from Miller to convene the conference.
Sanders and Miller agreed to restart talks over the weekend.
Asked late last week what it was like negotiating with the Senate’s foremost liberal, a visibly frustrated Miller said jokingly, and somewhat angrily: “Wonderful.”
But jokes aside, Miller said there is no personal animus between the two.
At the news conference Monday, Miller warmly thanked Sanders for “working in good faith throughout the entire process.”
“Sen. Sanders and I differ about certain things, but one thing we do agree about is that the veterans of this country deserve the best quality health care that they can get in a timely fashion,” Miller said.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this article.
July 27, 2014
Updated 9:39 p.m. | A $15 billion VA health care deal has been reached after a weekend of negotiating to resolve differences between the House and Senate.
House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., are planning to outline their agreement on a measure that would overhaul veterans health programs on Monday, aides said Sunday. The two lawmakers have scheduled a news conference for 1:30 p.m. Monday.
According to a summary of the agreement obtained by CQ Roll Call, the negotiators agreed to $15 billion in emergency mandatory spending — $10 billion for a new private care option for veterans and another $5 billion for improvements within the VA, like hiring doctors and nurses and upgrading facilities. That’s $5 billion more than Miller offered on Thursday and about $10 billion less than Sanders sought.
To qualify for the private care option, veterans would have to be experiencing long wait times or be located more than 40 miles from a VA facility. They would be able to access providers who already participate in Medicare.
The news comes as the Senate is also on track to confirm former Proctor & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald as the nation’s next secretary of Veterans Affairs before departing for the August break. Full story
July 24, 2014
Updated 1:08 p.m. | Talks on a fix for the Department of Veterans Affairs’ health care crisis have collapsed, after the lead Senate Democratic negotiator accused the top House GOP negotiator of a “take-it-or-leave-it gambit.”
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., said House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., has signaled he has abandoned talks after calling a noon meeting of the conference committee in an effort to ram a GOP plan through.
Sanders told CQ Roll Call he did not plan to attend the noon conference meeting called by Miller.
“It’s not a conference. A conference is when two sides agree to meet. This was decided at 10 last night by the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs,” Sanders said, adding he would be prepared to talk with Miller over the weekend.
After Sanders and Senate Democrats opted not to go, Boehner sent out a statement blasting them.
“In the wake of the shocking scandal at the Veterans Administration, the House passed a bipartisan VA reform and accountability bill, and we’re ready to complete work on an agreement the president can sign. Unfortunately, Senate Democrats refused to even show up and discuss bipartisan solutions, preferring instead to talk behind closed doors. That is shameful. If President Obama cares about America’s veterans, he needs to pick up his phone out in California and tell Senate Democrats to get to work.”
Sanders blasted the move in an earlier statement of his own.
“Instead of working constructively toward a compromise, Miller unilaterally called a ‘conference committee meeting’ to unveil his take-it-or-leave-it gambit,” Sanders said in the release. “This is a sad indication that the House leadership is not serious about negotiations. 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.”
On the Senate floor, Sanders said Miller’s move was a low point in the talks.
“This is a proposal that nobody on our side has seen,” Sanders said. “My understanding is that he then wants to take this to the House on Monday and [hold] a vote.”
“Any sixth grader in a school in the United States understands that this is not negotiation, this is not what democracy is about,” Sanders continued.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has also been involved in the talks, agreed that negotiations are in a difficult period, but suggested Sanders go to the noon meeting prepared to negotiate in calm fashion.
“I hope we could go to this conference at noon today and listen to the various proposals,” McCain said in an effort to save the talks.
Sanders asked McCain to sit down with Miller and the ranking members to work out a deal.
“I’d be more than glad to do that,” McCain said, adding he hoped agreement could be reached Thursday.
July 23, 2014
A congressional fix for the veterans health care crisis remains stalled over the pricetag.
Sen. Bernard Sanders on the Senate floor and later in a gaggle with reporters Wednesday said that a spat over a request for supplemental Veterans Affairs Department funding is among the disagreements in a House-Senate conference.
The independent from Vermont who serves as chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee said he believes at least some supplemental funding is needed for the VA, as requested by acting secretary Sloan Gibson.
The two sides are closer on paying for access to private care for veterans stuck on long waiting lists than they are on beefing up the VA’s own services.
“We must make sure that the VA has the doctors, the nurses, the medical personnel, the IT and the space they need in order to deal with this crisis, so that two years from now we’re not back in the same position that we are,” Sanders said.
“I think we can lower that amount of money,” from the $17.6 billion requested for those purposes, Sanders said. “Because some of that money is not going to be spent this year or even next year, but the issue here is that we have got to strengthen the VA, their capacity, so that veterans do not remain on long waiting periods, and that we can get them the quality and timely care they need.”
Sanders said there was general agreement that veterans facing claims backlogs need access to private care.
“That is what we’ve got to do because it is unacceptable that veterans remain on long wait lines, waiting periods and not get health care. There is a general agreement on that,” Sanders said. “I think we can reach some resolution on that.”
While Sanders would prefer to pass a bill with no offsets, he said he is “willing to concede that there can be some offsets, which I think will not hurt the veterans community.”
He called his counterpart, House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., “a serious man.”
“I think he wants to get a bill passed,” Sanders said.
“I hope, at least, that on this issue — we could overcome that partisanship and do this,” Sanders added later.
“It really would be a disgrace if Congress left for the August break without passing the veterans’ bill,” he said.
Sanders also quoted from a statement issued earlier this week by Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander William A. Thien.
“Pass a bill or don’t come back from recess … America’s veterans are tired of waiting — on secret waiting lists at the VA and on their elected officials to do their jobs,” Thien said. “If Congress goes on recess without passing this legislation, the VFW will work hard with all veterans and the American public to hold every member of Congress fully accountable for failing America’s veterans.”
Sanders highlighted a letter from 16 veterans’ service organizations to the leaders of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs’ Committees. That letter backs Gibson’s call for supplemental funding.
“Taking into account the progress achieved by VA over the past two months, and considering the funding shortfalls our organizations have identified over the past decade and in next year’s budget, the undersigned believe that Congress must quickly approve supplemental funding that fully meets the critical needs identified by Secretary Gibson, and which fulfills the principles and priorities we laid out a month ago,” the letter said. “Such an approach would be a reasonable and practical way to expand access now, while building internal capacity to avoid future access crises in the future.”
July 21, 2014
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Monday predicted Congress would fail to pass a fix for the veterans’ health crisis — and worried the same could happen with the border supplemental to address the child migrant crisis.
“We had a big show here, not long ago, where we provided $35 billion to help veterans. We’ve spent trillions of dollars in two wars, unpaid-for by the way. That’s what President [George W.] Bush wanted, and that’s what he got,” the Nevada Democrat said in a floor speech.
July 16, 2014
A few weeks ago, it would have been unthinkable that Congress would leave for August recess without sending a VA health care bill to President Barack Obama’s desk.
But Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would not rule out that possibility of gridlock over how to alleviate the crisis at the Department of Veterans Affairs as House and Senate conferees continue to talk.
“I would think if the, this conference goes on much longer, I think [the House] should just take what we’ve passed in the Senate,” the Nevada Democrat said. “It was a good piece of legislation, and it passed overwhelmingly here.” Full story
July 9, 2014
The sky-high CBO score for a veterans’ health care overhaul continues to stall progress weeks after separate bills blitzed through the House and Senate.
“That’s really a big problem and we know they are not legitimate,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a member of the conference committee, said of the CBO estimates.
Last month the CBO estimated the cost of a bill passed by the Senate to be $50 billion a year, mostly because the bill would allow veterans to seek care from private health care providers if the have an unreasonable wait time or live more than 40 miles, a provision that would last two years. Full story
June 24, 2014
House and Senate negotiators hope for a quick deal to fix the Department of Veterans Affairs although they have yet to resolve whether to offset a potentially enormous pricetag or add to the deficit.
More than two dozen members of the House and Senate met in a rare conference committee Tuesday to begin resolving each chambers’ proposals to address the VA health care scandal.
It was the first time in 15 years that members met in a joint committee regarding VA legislation, which Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said “shows how severe the problems facing the VA are and how serious members are about fixing them.” Full story
June 13, 2014
While everyone was focused on events in the House, the Senate had a sudden burst of productivity this week.
On Wednesday the chamber swiftly approved a Veterans Administration bill and quietly cleared an intelligence authorization by voice vote without any fanfare.
The Senate action came as the spotlight was on the House where the fallout of Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s Republican primary loss the night before was rippling through the chamber.
Action on the VA bill — passed so fast the CBO hasn’t finished analyzing it — had been spurred by the long wait times for medical attention across the country at VA facilities. Full story
June 12, 2014
Some senators are questioning an ‘astronomical’ but preliminary Congressional Budget Office score for the Senate-passed emergency veterans health bill — while promising to find ways to pay for it in conference with the House.
The CBO said the VA bill could cost $50 billion a year in expanded health benefits, but there were questions Thursday about how the CBO came to that figure.
“I think it’s astronomical because of some of the CBO assumptions, which among other things assumes that every veteran who qualifies now to get VA services … who hasn’t been using the VA, will all start using the VA and they’ll all have their share of health problems,” Missouri GOP Sen. Roy Blunt said. “Probably neither of those two things turn out to be the case.”
June 11, 2014
As the Senate voted overwhelmingly to pass legislation designed to fix problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the amount of new spending in the measure began to clarify.
And the price tag could be a gut-check when it comes to understanding what it really costs to fulfill sacred obligations to America’s veterans. The cost of the measure could be astronomical.
That’s according to preliminary numbers circulated by the Congressional Budget Office Wednesday afternoon. The bill would give veterans new opportunities to seek care outside of the health care system provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Senate had a rare burst of productivity Wednesday, passing a bipartisan bill aimed at tackling the VA health care scandal at warp speed.
The Senate backed the compromise Veterans Affairs package, 93-3, sending it to the House after leaders in both parties responded to the national outcry over tens of thousands of veterans stuck waiting months for health care.
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., led negotiations on the bipartisan agreement to get veterans access to outside medical providers and provide emergency funds for doctors, nurse and facilities with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
June 10, 2014
The Senate could move ahead at breakneck pace on bipartisan legislation to address the scandal rocking the Department of Veterans Affairs — after just as swiftly voting to block a partisan student loan refinancing bill.
A test vote on the student loan measure championed by Democrats and led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is set for Wednesday, and despite the vocal support of Democrats and an outside public relations push, it is going nowhere fast.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell dissed that measure, which would allow student loans to be refinanced at lower current rates with an offsetting millionaire minimum tax. Instead, he said, the Senate should be acting on the bill to address the unfolding scandal at the VA, negotiated by Veterans Affairs Chairman Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., and Republican John McCain of Arizona.