WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee said Wednesday there is still time for Congress to approve a landmark bill to improve health care services for veterans, despite deep disagreement over how much the changes will cost and how they should be paid for.
"It really would be a disgrace if we adjourn (for the month of August) without a bill," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. "The good news is I think that we can bring forth a bill which deals with contracted-out care for veterans ... and I think we can also strengthen the VA."
Negotiations over a bill to bolster the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs in response to a furor over long patient wait times and falsified records to cover up the delays have bogged down over costs and how much the VA should turn to outside doctors to address the backlog.
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said last week the VA needs at least $17.6 billion over the next three years to hire 10,000 doctors, nurses and other health care aides, lease new facilities and upgrade its computer system.
The Senate has passed a reform bill pegged at $35 billion over the next three years. The House's version would cost $44 billion, according to congressional budget analysts, most of it to provide outside care.
Republicans complain Gibson's request is thinly documented. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House veterans panel, said the $17.6 billion figure "seems to have magically fallen out of the sky. It would be an act of budgetary malpractice to blindly sign off on this request."
Gibson is scheduled to testify Thursday before Miller's committee.
Sanders said it is clear the VA needs more doctors, nurses and clinical space. "This is the moment where we're going to have to address, in a very serious way, the needs of our veterans," he told reporters Wednesday.
North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, the top Republican on the Senate veterans panel, said the $17.6 billion requested by Gibson doesn't have to be part of any agreement worked out with the House. Burr said he remained optimistic that a bill could clear Congress before it recesses at the end of next week.
The leaders of 16 major organizations representing millions of veterans sent a letter to Congress Wednesday urging approval of Gibson's request.
"Congress has a sacred obligation to provide VA with the funds it requires to meet both immediate needs through non-VA care and future needs by expanding VA's internal capacity," the letter said. Those signing the letter included leaders of the Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Vietnam Veterans of America.
Earlier Wednesday, the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee unanimously endorsed former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald to be the new secretary of Veterans Affairs. Senators said they are eager for McDonald to begin work reforming the VA, which has been plagued by treatment delays and falsified records at VA hospitals and clinics nationwide.
McDonald, 61, of Cincinnati, has pledged to transform the VA and address a series of "systematic failures," including patient access to health care, transparency, accountability and integrity.
The Senate could act on McDonald's nomination anytime during the next several days.