Will Congress fork over $17 billion to fix the VA?

by Lynde Langdon
Posted 7/29/14, 12:00 pm

Congress will pay for some veterans to get care from private doctors as part of proposed reforms to the Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare system.

The chairmen of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs committees announced Monday a plan to spend about $17 billion to improve the broken VA system. Investigations earlier this year revealed outrageous wait times for doctors’ visits and records that had been falsified to cover up the problems. President Barack Obama welcomed the improvements proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday the president was pleased the bill would “provide VA the additional resources necessary to deliver timely, high-quality care to veterans through a strengthened VA system.”

The changes do not give all veterans carte blanche to seek medical care wherever they want. Such a move could cause a flood of veterans who currently do not participate in the VA system to sign up, only adding to the VA’s challenges. The deal includes $10 billion to pay for private care for veterans who cannot get prompt care at a VA medical center if the veterans either enrolled in the VA before Aug. 1 or live more than 40 miles from a VA clinic or hospital.

The remainder of the $17 billion would go toward hiring more staff for VA centers, leasing 27 new clinics around the country in an attempt to reduce the wait time for care, and a few miscellaneous proposals, such as a new scholarship program for veterans. Of the bill’s total cost, $12 billion is designated for “emergency funds” that do not have to be offset by cuts somewhere else. That bolus of funding could aggravate Republicans when the bill comes to a vote, but Sanders and Miller said they expected their colleagues to write the check.

“Taking care of veterans is not an inexpensive proposition and our members understand that,” Miller said at a news conference announcing the deal. “This is the way we have to make sure veterans are not standing in line.”

The bill also would give the secretary of Veterans Affairs more power to fire underperforming executives. The Senate is expected this week to confirm Robert McDonald, former CEO of Proctor & Gamble, as the new VA secretary. He will replace Eric Shinseki, who resigned in May as the VA’s problems came to light and grew into a scandal.

Veterans groups cautiously praised Sanders’ and Miller’s proposal, noting they hoped to see more changes in the future.

“While no veteran should be forced to wait too long or travel too far to get their care, we remain concerned that simply giving veterans plastic cards and wishing them good luck in the private sector is not a substitute for a coordinated system of care,” said Garry Augustine, executive director of the Disabled American Veterans. “The VA must remain fully responsible for ensuring the best health outcomes for veterans.”

American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger echoed Augustine’s statement, saying: “We know that Sen. Sanders and Rep. Miller have labored diligently to reach bipartisan consensus. But it would be a great mistake to see this legislation as a one-time fix for all the woes that have been hobbling VA’s performance and credibility.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Lynde Langdon

Lynde is a WORLD Digital’s managing editor and reports on popular and fine arts. She lives in Wichita, Kan., with her husband and two daughters. Follow Lynde on Twitter @lmlangdon.

Read more from this writer