A congressional fix for the veterans health care crisis remains stalled over the pricetag.
Sen. Bernard Sanders on the Senate floor and later in a gaggle with reporters Wednesday said that a spat over a request for supplemental Veterans Affairs Department funding is among the disagreements in a House-Senate conference.
The independent from Vermont who serves as chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee said he believes at least some supplemental funding is needed for the VA, as requested by acting secretary Sloan Gibson.
The two sides are closer on paying for access to private care for veterans stuck on long waiting lists than they are on beefing up the VA's own services.
"We must make sure that the VA has the doctors, the nurses, the medical personnel, the IT and the space they need in order to deal with this crisis, so that two years from now we're not back in the same position that we are," Sanders said.
"I think we can lower that amount of money," from the $17.6 billion requested for those purposes, Sanders said. "Because some of that money is not going to be spent this year or even next year, but the issue here is that we have got to strengthen the VA, their capacity, so that veterans do not remain on long waiting periods, and that we can get them the quality and timely care they need."
Sanders said there was general agreement that veterans facing claims backlogs need access to private care.
"That is what we've got to do because it is unacceptable that veterans remain on long wait lines, waiting periods and not get health care. There is a general agreement on that," Sanders said. "I think we can reach some resolution on that."
While Sanders would prefer to pass a bill with no offsets, he said he is "willing to concede that there can be some offsets, which I think will not hurt the veterans community."
He called his counterpart, House Veterans' Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., "a serious man."
"I think he wants to get a bill passed," Sanders said.
"I hope, at least, that on this issue — we could overcome that partisanship and do this," Sanders added later.
"It really would be a disgrace if Congress left for the August break without passing the veterans' bill," he said.
Sanders also quoted from a statement issued earlier this week by Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander William A. Thien.
"Pass a bill or don’t come back from recess ... America's veterans are tired of waiting — on secret waiting lists at the VA and on their elected officials to do their jobs," Thien said. "If Congress goes on recess without passing this legislation, the VFW will work hard with all veterans and the American public to hold every member of Congress fully accountable for failing America's veterans."
Sanders highlighted a letter from 16 veterans' service organizations to the leaders of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs' Committees. That letter backs Gibson's call for supplemental funding.
"Taking into account the progress achieved by VA over the past two months, and considering the funding shortfalls our organizations have identified over the past decade and in next year's budget, the undersigned believe that Congress must quickly approve supplemental funding that fully meets the critical needs identified by Secretary Gibson, and which fulfills the principles and priorities we laid out a month ago," the letter said. "Such an approach would be a reasonable and practical way to expand access now, while building internal capacity to avoid future access crises in the future."