Senate Veterans’ Health Plan May Top $35 Billion in Three Years

Jun 12, 2014 12:00 am ET

June 12 (Bloomberg) -- A measure passed by the Senate with broad bipartisan support to improve access to health care for U.S. military veterans may cost the federal government $35.5 billion over the first three years.

A preliminary analysis of the plan to let veterans seek care from non-VA providers shows it may ultimately cost about $50 billion a year, according to the Congressional Budget Office, Congress’s nonpartisan scorekeeper. Some of those costs would be offset by savings to Medicare, CBO said yesterday.

“The cost of war does not end when the last shots are fired and the last missiles are launched,” Senate Veterans Affairs Chairman Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, said on the chamber floor. “The cost of war continues until the last veteran receives the care and benefits that he or she is entitled to and has earned.”

The measure passed yesterday 93-3, with Republican Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Jeff Sessions of Alabama voting no. Corker and Sessions cited the cost as a reason for their opposition.

“I value too much the sacrifice and service our veterans have given to our country to vote for a bill that was thrown together without any discussion by this body and increases the deficit by at least $35 billion,” Corker said in an e-mailed statement.

CBO estimated that as the program ramps up, the additional care would cost about $500 million this year, $10 billion in 2015 and $25 billion in 2016.

Waiting Lists

The Senate passed the bill two weeks after a government inspector general reported that VA hospitals and clinics were hiding months-long waiting lists of veterans trying to see doctors. An internal VA audit released June 9 showed more than 120,000 veterans hadn’t received a medical appointment or were currently waiting longer than 90 days for care.

Senators now must iron out differences between their bill and House legislation, which doesn’t include money for the Department of Veterans Affairs to hire new doctors or nurses.

“We’ll get it done quick,” Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who helped craft his chamber’s measure, said about negotiations with the House. “There’s a certain urgency here.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has opened a criminal investigation into delays in medical care at veterans’ hospitals, FBI Director James Comey said yesterday at a House Judiciary Committee hearing.

“Our Phoenix office has opened a criminal investigation,” Comey said. “We’ll follow it wherever the facts take us.”

Phony Records

The Veterans Affairs inspector general’s report on May 28 said some VA hospitals kept phony records to hide delays in treating veterans. Richard Griffin, the acting inspector general, said a review of 42 VA medical facilities found repeated instances of altered waiting lists.

At the Phoenix facility that first focused the recent attention on the agency’s deficiencies, as many as 1,700 veterans were “at risk of being lost or forgotten” when that hospital left them off an official list of patients waiting to see a doctor, according to the report.

At least 18 veterans died while awaiting medical care in Phoenix, Sloan Gibson, acting Veterans Affairs secretary, has said. House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican, has said there were as many as 40 deaths.

Shinseki Resigned

Subsequent audits widened the scope of the VA’s failings to hospitals and clinics across the country, adding to the difficulty President Barack Obama may have in finding someone new to oversee the department and its $160 billion budget. The previous secretary, Eric Shinseki, resigned last month.

The Senate bill would allow VA officials to more easily fire or demote senior executives for inadequate job performance. It would authorize leases for 26 new health-care facilities and expand the non-VA facilities where veterans could seek medical care.

The measure, H.R. 3230, was negotiated by McCain and Sanders. It also would broaden VA treatment of sexual assault victims and expand recruitment programs for medical students.

Those measures have been included in some of the dozen veterans-related bills that the House has passed in recent months.

One difference between the House and Senate legislation is about $500 million the Senate would spend on hiring doctors and nurses. The House agreed on a plan to study VA’s available resources before Congress would provide that funding.

“I’m hopeful that both chambers of Congress can soon agree on a final package to send to the president’s desk,” Miller said in a statement after the Senate vote.

--With assistance from Del Quentin Wilber and Kathleen Hunter in Washington.