Lawmakers talk cost of VA reform bills in early negotiations

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Lawmakers worked Tuesday afternoon to iron out differences between the House and Senate bills to reform the VA, and while small differences existed between the bills, the biggest issue was the money.

The House and Senate overwhelmingly passed separate legislation earlier this month to let veterans seek care outside the VA as well as increase accountability for senior executive employees. Both bills have a hefty price tag — the Congressional Budget Office estimated the Senate bill would cost at least $35 billion and up to $50 billion a year if fully implemented and the House bill would cost about $44 billion.

Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican and ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said his colleagues need to question the CBO’s scoring before even talking about what changes the bills make to the VA.

“Is the CBO product that they’ve produced representative of anything sane?” Mr. Burr said at the joint conference committee to compromise on the bill. “This is ludicrous. It is impossible for us to even start an intelligent conversation on what we put in legislation when we have numbers that are so grotesquely out of line.”

Mr. Burr added that problems at the VA stem from a cultural problem that can’t be fixed with legislation. Instead, changes must come from within the VA.

Rep. Doug Lamborn, Colorado Republican, also said the VA needs better accountability, and that additional funding also won’t fix the problem.

“We can’t just fix the problem by simply throwing more money on it,” he said.

Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent and chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, was not critical of the high cost, repeating his recent mantra that the country should not send veterans to war if it is not willing to pay for their care when they return home.

“I think everyone in this room understands that the cost of war does not end when the last shots are fired and the last missiles are launched,” he said. “Taking care of veterans is a cost of war.”

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