July 18 (Bloomberg) -- Negotiations in Congress over how to finance medical care for U.S. military veterans are stalled although Republicans and Democrats say completing a deal before next month is a top priority.
Talks between the House and Senate, already moving slowly, were further disrupted when President Barack Obama’s acting head of the Veterans Affairs Department told lawmakers July 16 the agency needs another 10,000 workers and an additional $17.6 billion through 2017.
“We were moving along and all of the sudden this additional piece came out, and it kind of slowed it down,” Representative Michael Michaud, the top Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said in an interview yesterday. “That kind of surprised us.”
The two sides have exchanged just one offer since opening talks more than three weeks ago, said House VA Committee Chairman Jeff Miller. Miller, a Florida Republican, said a deal is needed by the middle of next week to give lawmakers enough time to vote on the plan before their five-week break starts in August.
Medical care for veterans became a top issue in Congress after an inspector general reported that staff at VA hospitals falsified records to hide long waits for veterans seeking medical appointments. Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned in May.
If lawmakers can’t agree on a plan before August, they may hear from voters back home. Almost nine of 10 Americans said it was extremely important or very important to improve health care for military veterans, according to a Gallup poll released June 13.
Republicans and Democrats negotiating the deal said the biggest hurdle has been how to pay for a plan that would let veterans bypass lengthy waits at government hospitals and clinics to instead visit doctors at non-VA facilities.
An internal VA audit on 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 down to about 42,400 as of July 1, VA data show.
The VA has experienced an influx of patients as about half of the 1.9 million troops discharged after serving in Afghanistan or Iraq return to the U.S. in need of medical care, according to VA data. The department, which has a $160 billion annual budget, operates the nation’s largest integrated health- care system.
Senate Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Richard Burr of North Carolina said in interviews that they want to use emergency funds to pay for much of the approximately $35 billion measure, while finding offsets within the budget to pay for the rest.
Miller said House Republicans have proposed offsetting part of the $10 billion the bill would cost in the first year. He didn’t give details.
“I am counting on the Senate to do something” to advance the talks, he said.
Meanwhile, Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders said the entire plan should be financed with emergency funds, which the Senate bill, passed 93-3, would do.
Sanders also told reporters July 16 that the $17.6 billion request from interim VA secretary Sloan Gibson should be added to the negotiations between the two chambers. Miller said that was a “non-starter.”
“The needs of our veterans are a cost of war,” Sanders said. The Vermont independent said Republicans are “putting veterans in the position to offset what? Cut food stamps, cut Medicaid?”
“Is that what we really want, to put veterans in the middle of that absurd debate?” Sanders said.
Michaud said Sanders may have to give in to get a final agreement.
“In order to get something through the House, there has to be some type of pay-for, for at least a portion of it,” Michaud said.
The wrangling has some lawmakers worried that a deal may not be completed before the August break.
“Around here, if I wasn’t concerned about that I wouldn’t be breathing,” said Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat.
--With assistance from James Rowley in Washington.