Independent Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and Arizona Republican Senator John McCain introduced a bipartisan bill June 5th intended to improve veterans’ access to health care and address problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs. This week, the Senate and House Veterans Conference Committee met to discuss the new proposal.
The joint meeting between Republicans, Democrats and Independents from the House and Senate was the first time in 15 years that the veterans affairs committee engaged in a formal member conference. They gathered for their first discussion of the Sanders-McCain veterans bill.
Sanders, the committee co-chair, emphasized that the current chaos in the VA is unacceptable and Congress must act to correct problems. He noted that both the House and Senate bills focus on the need to provide timely access to health care and the need for accountability. “In the last four years we have seen a significant increase in the number of veterans utilizing VA health care. In addition, many of our veterans from WWII, Korea and Vietnam require a greater amount of care. Further, a recent VA audit revealed that more than 57,000 veterans are on too-long waiting lists in order to be scheduled for medical appointments. And in addition to that there are other veterans seeking care at VA who were never even added. This is clearly unacceptable and must be dealt with immediately.”
Sanders added that if the nation sends soldiers to war, it must be prepared to care for veterans. “If we are not prepared to take care of those men and women who went to war, then we shouldn’t send them to war in the first place. Taking care of veterans is a cost of war, period.”
The Congressional Budget Office released a preliminary estimate of the House version of the Veteran Access to Care Act finding it would cost about $44 billion between 2014-2019. Its preliminary estimate of Title III of the Senate version calculates a spending increase of roughly $35 billion over the 2014-2024 period. The agency has not completed analysis of other sections of the bill. Bill co-sponsor McCain calls the CBO scoring inaccurate. “That is a totally unrealistic estimation. And I think we ought to look for ways that we can pay for these expenses. If there’s ever such a thing as an emergency, it is this issue.”
Connecticut Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal raised several concerns that the panel needs to address, including whistleblowers, wait times and services for women veterans. “Time is not on our side. This tragedy is a growing, unfolding burgeoning one. We’re learning literally day-by-day about its new dimensions. For me, as shocking as cooking the books is, retaliation against our whistleblowers.
West Virginia Democratic Senator John Rockefeller noted that he has served on the Veterans Affairs Committee since he entered Congress 30 years ago. And while much has changed, from attitudes toward PTSD and returning soldiers, treating radiation sickness, Agent Orange and other war-related illness, Rockefeller says too much remains familiar. “We need to improve the VA, not tear it down. In some ways it’s not that complicated. I just don’t want us to do what we’ve done to so many other generations of veterans with complaints who have died.”
The House and Senate Veterans Affairs Conference Committee is a bipartisan group with 28 members.