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Lawmakers hope to get VA reform bill back on track

Jul. 11, 2014 - 03:27PM   |  
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Now that the price tag for the Veterans Affairs Department reform bill has been slashed by about $120 billion over three years, lawmakers are hopeful the legislation can move ahead quickly.

But they’ll need to find ways to offset about $10 billion in each of the next three years to finalize the measure, still an expensive and potentially problematic figure.

On Thursday, the Congressional Budget Office released a new analysis of the pending VA reform bill, already being negotiated by House and Senate conferees.

Initially, the CBO estimated the measure’s cost at up to $50 billion a year, citing provisions that would have dramatically expanded private care options for veterans facing long wait times for VA appointments or living in rural areas far from VA clinics.

The new CBO estimate puts the cost at about $30 billion over the next three years, with costs dropping off dramatically after the private-care pilot program expires.

Conference committee members had laughed off the initial estimates as unrealistic, but the high figures effectively delayed work on a compromise bill for two weeks, despite lawmakers’ insistence on moving the legislation quickly.

Just a few hours before the new estimate was released, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said he expected negotiations to speed up once the new figures were public. Leaders from both chambers have expressed optimism that a final bill can be passed before the scheduled August congressional break.

But House members on the conference committee have insisted that any new costs with the private care expansion must be paid for with offsets and not emergency funds. Senate leaders have said the health care appointment delays facing veterans constitute an emergency and the fixes should be implemented immediately regardless of cost. Even with the lower figure, the two sides will still have to find a way to pay for it.

In a statement, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., downplayed the updated estimate.

“Wars are expensive and taking care of the men and women who put their lives on the line to defend us is a cost of war,” Sanders said.

The reform bill was spurred by VA’s recent scandals concerning administrators gaming patient wait times to protect performance bonuses. The controversy has forced the resignation of several top department officials, including VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in May.

Along with the private care expansion, the reform bill would make it easier for the VA secretary to fire top department employees for mismanagement or poor performance.

The Senate also has pushed for numerous unrelated initiatives concerning GI Bill benefits and VA services for sexual assault victims. So far House members have not supported including those issues in the compromise bill, preferring to pass them as separate legislation.

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