Talks in Congress about financing medical care for U.S. military veterans stalled for the second time in two weeks as the Senate’s top negotiator said Republican leaders are “not serious about negotiations.”
“At this point, I can only conclude with great reluctance that the good faith we have shown is simply not being reciprocated by the other side,” Senate Veterans Affairs chairman Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, said in the chamber Thursday.
House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican, disputed Sanders’ characterization, saying it was “wildly exaggerated” to suggest talks were imploding. Miller said Sanders had “moved the goal posts” and refused to meet publicly to exchange offers.
“I don’t know where the ball is right now,” Miller told reporters after calling a conference committee meeting that Sanders, and most Democrats on the panel, didn’t attend. “He put something out, we put something out. We'll get together Monday if he wants to,” Miller said.
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The Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general has reported widespread mismanagement, including the falsification of records to hide the long waits veterans face for medical appointments. Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned in May.
The House and Senate passed differing proposals to provide more funding and streamline waiting times, and the conference committee has been trying to come up with a final plan.
Republicans and Democrats involved in the talks say they agree on most policy changes, though financing remains a sticking point. Republicans want to offset costs with changes elsewhere in the budget, while Democrats say the situation warrants emergency funding without offsets.
The revelations – at least 35 veterans died while awaiting care in Phoenix, acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson has said – have made veterans issues a priority in Congress. Leaders in both parties insist they want to get a deal before taking a five-week break from Washington, which is supposed to start at the end of next week.
“It’s unimaginable for any of us here to believe that we’re going to go home next Thursday or Friday for our recess and this issue will be unresolved,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican on the veterans committee. “It would be viewed as unacceptable.”
The two chambers’ proposals would empower the veterans secretary to fire incompetent senior officials. The Senate legislation also would allow veterans who have waited too long or live too far from a VA facility to be treated by a private doctor or hospital.
Sanders said July 21 that he’s willing to consider offsetting some costs of the measure with other budget changes.
He said Thursday that he offered a stripped-down measure with a price tag of $25 billion, down from the $44 billion cost of the House proposal.
Miller Thursday proposed using about $10 billion in emergency funding, while putting the remaining costs through the normal budget process.
Gibson has been overseeing the agency, which has a $160 billion budget and runs the nation’s largest integrated health- care system.
An internal VA audit in June showed that more than 120,000 veterans hadn’t received a medical appointment or were waiting more than 90 days for care. That number had been cut to about 42,400 by July 1, VA data show.
A Senate committee Wednesday unanimously approved former Procter & Gamble Chief Executive Officer Bob McDonald to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, sending his nomination to the full Senate.