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October 10, 2015

CBO Score Continues to Vex Veterans Bill Talks

Sanders (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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.

“They’re saying because so many more veterans will use it, that it will be more expensive. That doesn’t make sense,” McCain said.

A bipartisan group of Senate negotiators are currently working with a bipartisan group of House members to draft a compromise bill that can clear both chambers and be sent to the president for his signature. McCain said some negotiators met Wednesday morning.

Senate Veterans’ Affairs chairman Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., who is also a negotiator, agreed that the cost is an issue, but he stressed that it will cost money to fix the VA.

“We are working with them,” Sanders said of the CBO.

“We have to understand that getting veterans the quality care that they need in a timely manner … is going to be an expensive proposition and if we are talking about making sure that we address the long-term problems at the VA that means that above and beyond the emergency healthcare the veterans need right now to eliminate the long wait periods, we also are going to have to make sure that the VA is adequately staffed in terms of doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel,” Sanders continued. “That is going to be an expensive proposition.”

He also stressed that the issue is an emergency and that the spending should not be offset.

“But I believe absolutely that the American people are going to want us to address this issue, understand that it’s going to cost money, above and beyond the need to improve accountability and transparency and punishing those people who have done a poor job or have been dishonest,” Sanders said. “And that has to be done through emergency numbers.”

Asked how he would convince House Republicans of the emergency needs, Sanders said, “I think many of these guys understand that.”

Sanders’ comments come after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., blamed House Republicans for delaying the veterans bill talks.

He declined to comment on Reid’s accusations, and just added, “We are trying to do the best that we can.”

Sanders also refused to put a timeline on when negotiations would be concluded and an agreement could be reached.

“All I can tell you is that we are working on this very, very hard and we would like to get this wrapped up a soon as possible,” Sanders said.

McCain said he hopes an agreement can be reached before Congress goes out for the August recess.

“We understand that it’s critical that we get something passed before we go out,” the Arizona Republican said.

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