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July 28, 2014

Posts in "Veterans Affairs"

July 27, 2014

VA Health Care Deal Reached; Miller, Sanders Plan to Announce Monday (Updated)

sanders 027 040913 445x296 VA Health Care Deal Reached; Miller, Sanders Plan to Announce Monday (Updated)

Sanders (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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

VA Talks Collapse (Updated) (Video)

sanders 027 040913 445x296 VA Talks Collapse (Updated) (Video)

Sanders (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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

Sanders Says Money Still Stalling VA Conference

sanders 027 040913 445x296 Sanders Says Money Still Stalling VA Conference

Sanders (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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

Reid Predicts Veterans’ Health Bill Will Fall, Fears Gridlock on Border Supplemental (Video)

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.

Full story

July 16, 2014

Will Congress Take August Recess Before Relieving VA Health Crisis? (Video)

reid 092 0501314 445x297 Will Congress Take August Recess Before Relieving VA Health Crisis? (Video)

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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

CBO Score Continues to Vex Veterans Bill Talks

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Sanders (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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

VA Conference Committee Hopes for Quick Deal Despite High Price Tag

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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

What Happens in the Senate When No One’s Looking? A Lot

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While all eyes were on the House, the Senate actually got some work done. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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

Senators Doubt ‘Astronomical’ CBO Score for VA Health Bill

coburn011 060414 230x335 Senators Doubt Astronomical CBO Score for VA Health Bill

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

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.”

Full story

June 11, 2014

Veterans Could Get $50 Billion a Year in New Health Care

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Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is a co-sponsor on the bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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.

Full story

Senate Passes Emergency VA Bill at Warp Speed

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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.

Full story

June 10, 2014

VA Bill Could Pass Senate by Week’s End (Video)

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(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

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.

Full story

June 9, 2014

Senate Democrats Have Full Agenda Ahead

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senate Democrats are in a race against the clock in order to consider all the must-pass legislation, such as a new highway bill and an overhaul of the Department of Veterans Affairs, alongside a host of election-year items aimed at drawing contrasts with the GOP.

The Senate is poised to consider a bipartisan deal — drafted by Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. — that would reduce wait times for medical care at the VA.

“Details of the agreement are not in writing yet … they are being drafted,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Monday. Reid said he “will be happy to schedule a vote as soon as possible.”

The bill has bipartisan urgency and momentum behind it to deal with the still-widening VA scandal.

But Democrats will also consider a host of other bills aimed squarely at defining the GOP as the party of the rich and Democrats as the party of the people ahead of November. Full story

June 5, 2014

Sanders, McCain Announce VA Health Care Deal (Updated) (Video)

mccain 328 103013 445x293 Sanders, McCain Announce VA Health Care Deal (Updated) (Video)

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated 4:16 p.m. | Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., announced a bipartisan VA health care deal Thursday afternoon.

Sanders, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs chairman, and McCain met Thursday to negotiate a bipartisan response to the scandal at the VA — and they announced the deal on the Senate floor.

“We were able to come together, I believe, in a way that will help to relieve this terrible tragedy that seems to have befallen our nation’s veterans,” McCain said. “We both had to make some very tough compromises.”

“Our job was to sit down and work out the best agreement. We did,” Sanders said. “Does it solve all of the problems facing our veterans? Absolutely not.”

The deal includes accountability measures allowing immediate firing of Department of Veterans Affairs officials, leases for 26 new VA major medical facilities and authorization to hire new doctors and nurses.

Notably, it would also allow veterans to get private care if they are experiencing long wait times or are more than 40 miles from a VA facility. The provision would last for two years and then be evaluated to see if it addresses the issue. What counts as unreasonable will be determined by the VA.

Sanders said that allowing private healthcare providers to solve the problem was a significant concession for him, because he is concerned about privatization of the system. “It opens up a fear of privatization, which I am strongly, strongly opposed to,” Sanders said.

It also includes other issues, including in-state tuition rates for all veterans at public colleges and universities. Surviving spouses of soldiers who die in the line of duty would also get tuition aid.

The measure is expected to cost less than $2 billion and will be classified as an emergency appropriation, meaning it would not have to be offset under budget rules. Full story

June 4, 2014

Sanders Negotiating for Bipartisan VA Bill

Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., said he hopes to craft a bipartisan compromise to address to the lengthy wait times at VA hospitals.

“We are working on an agreement,” Sanders said. Full story

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