Lawmakers questioned Thursday morning how the Department of Veterans Affairs could ask for more than $17 billion in emergency funding, but only provide a handful of pages to describe how the money would be spent.
“You’re making it very, very difficult for us to do our job if we get three pieces of paper that are working documents. At some point, they have to be the final documents,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson testified before the committee that he stood by the number due to an increased number of patients with more complex diagnoses across the VA system. Several VA facilities experienced double-digit growth in patient visits and the average VA patient has nine major diagnoses, he said.
“I believe the greatest risk to veterans over the immediate to long term is that additional resources are provided only to support increased purchased care in the community and not to materially remedy the historic shortfall,” Mr. Gibson said.
Mr. Gibson added that the large amount represents only a “moderate percentage increase,” and that the funds would go to hire more doctors, buy more space, update technology systems and expedite disability reviews.
But Mr. Miller said more money is not the answer, especially because he believes the budget request is not accurate since the VA admits their numbers are not reliable.
“Our veterans deserve the best but throwing more money into the department that has never been denied a dime will not fix the perverse culture that has pervaded the department,” he said.
The House and Senate both passed bills that would allow veterans waiting too long for an appointment or living too far from a VA facility to seek private care. The bills cost about $44 billion and $35 billion respectively, and negotiations have stalled over if and how to offset the huge cost.
As Mr. Gibson was testifying, the House Veterans Affairs Committee announced that lawmakers involved with negotiating the compromise veterans reform bill would meet Thursday at noon. But a spokesman for Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent and chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said the meeting would not involve Senate negotiators.
“This is a sad indication that the House leadership is not serious about negotiations. We don’t need more speeches and posturing. We need serious negotiations — 24/7 if necessary — to resolve our differences in order to pass critical legislation,” Mr. Sanders said in a statement.
Mr. Sanders offered Mr. Miller a $25 billion compromise bill last week, but the House chair is insisting on a “take it or leave it” approach, the Senate release said.
The disagreement not bode well for finalizing a bill to send to the president before Congress leaves Washington at the end of next week for the whole month of August.