Reforming the VA: Maine Delegation Wants Agreement on Fix Before Recess

Jul 25, 2014

Congressional negotiations on a bill to reform the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and address the myriad of problems in the agency, are at an impasse with the co-chairs of the conference committee blaming each other for delays.  Meanwhile, Maine’s delegation is saying Congress should stay at work until the bill is passed.

Congress plans to recess at the end of next week for its traditional August break, but several major unresolved issues, including reform of the Veterans administration, could hold that up. The House and Senate have both passed bills addressing the serious problems in the VA, where hearings and investigations have revealed lengthy delays in care, and officials covering up their incompetence.

Maine 2nd District Congressman Mike Michaud serves on the conference committee and is the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. "We definitely ought to stay in until we are able to get this fixed, conference committee report done," he says. "This is only a short term fix."

But it is an expensive fix. It could cost up to $35 billion, with billions more in following years above the current spending levels. The Senate negotiators want at least $23 billion in the bill, and House Republicans are only proposing $10 billion.

Michaud says where the money comes from is the stumbling block. "The ultimate issue is how much is going to be considered emergency spending, and how much we’re going to have to find offsets for," he says.

That angers Democratic 1st District Congresswoman Chellie Pingree. She says too many members of Congress are willing to fund ongoing military needs, but not the costs of veterans care that results from those wars.

"I get extremely discouraged that colleagues I serve with in Congress will have emergency funding out there for any conflict that the United States decides to get in to," she says. "But when it comes to the other side - Should we take care of those that have served their country in the conflict, in the war? - we don’t necessarily put the same amount of funds in there to make sure they are well taken care of."

Pingree agrees Congress should stay in Washington until the issue is resolved. And while she believes emergency spending is warranted, there are bipartisan concerns about such spending because it adds to the federal budget deficit.  Complicating the talks is the request made by the VA for an additional $17.6 billion over the next three years, above the proposed spending in the House and Senate bills.

Sen. Angus King, an independent, also believes Congress should complete work on the legislation before taking a break. He says it provides improved oversight and the ability to remove bureaucrats that may be obstructing efforts to improve care. "It’s been inexcusable the way it has gone, and it really takes some people to be held accountable for results."

King, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says Congress needs to treat the costs of veterans' care as a continuation of the nation’s defense budget. Republican Sen. Susan Collins agrees. "It is a scandal because we have a solemn obligation to keep our promises to the veterans who served our country," she says.

And Collins agrees that the legislation is needed to make the VA more accountable and is willing to stay at work until it is done. But she is worried too much of the additional funds will go for administration and not enough for direct health care.

Michaud says the conference committee meets again on Monday, and he is optimistic an agreement can be worked out - although he concedes it is taking longer than he expected.