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Veterans’ health bill talks begin

By Derek Wallbank and James Rowley

WASHINGTON — House and Senate lawmakers began negotiations Tuesday on the central question holding up legislation to reduce waiting times at U.S. Veterans Affairs hospitals — how to pay for it.

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Republicans say they want increased spending to be offset by reductions elsewhere in the budget, while the Democratic-controlled Senate’s bill provides emergency funds that don’t have to be financed with other cuts. Lawmakers also are having sticker shock following estimates that the measures would cost $35 billion to $44 billion over the next five years.

“War, as everyone here knows, is a very expensive proposition — in terms of human life, human suffering and in financial terms,” Senate Veterans Affairs Chairman Bernie Sanders said as the conferees met.

“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,” said Sanders, a Vermont independent. “Taking care of veterans is a cost of war, period.”

Lawmakers in both parties agree that Congress must reduce waiting times for patients at veterans’ hospitals following reports that officials at VA hospitals hid months-long waiting lists of veterans trying to see doctors. An internal VA audit released June 9 showed more than 120,000 veterans hadn’t received an appointment or were currently waiting longer than 90 days for care.

The FBI has begun a criminal investigation into VA hospital delays. Eric Shinseki, the secretary of the Veterans Affairs Department, resigned in May as a result of the controversy.

“We’ll get the conference started but you’ve got to marry language and you’ve got to figure out how to pay for this,” the Senate’s top Republican negotiator, Richard Burr of North Carolina, said before the hearing.

Several Republicans on the panel said they don’t believe the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate that the measures would cost as much as $44 billion over five years.

Burr at the hearing called CBO’s estimate “ludicrous” and said it would be impossible to figure out what to do until better numbers were available.

Republicans have repeatedly opposed new spending — even for aid after floods and hurricanes — if it’s not fully paid for in the budget. Emergency spending that isn’t financed with higher taxes or spending cuts would increase the U.S. deficit at a time when Congress has focused on how to cut costs.

House Speaker John Boehner, asked last week if the final VA bill would be deficit-neutral, said, “I’ve got my doubts about that.”

The House and Senate bills would allow veterans who have waited too long for care, or who live more than a certain distance from VA facilities, to seek private care at the public’s expense. The measures differ on how long the wait would have to be.

Lawmakers also are deadlocked over how to finance other spending increases, including for road funding. About $9 billion is needed as soon as July to patch the Highway Trust Fund for the rest of the year, and lawmakers have ruled out increasing the 18.4 cents-a-gallon gas tax that funds highways.

That has left lawmakers looking to tie an unrelated issue, such as tax policy changes or Postal Service cutbacks, to highway funding to bridge the difference.

Asked about the VA bill costs, and how Congress would end the new benefits after two years when the House legislation would expire, House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller said, “The object is clear the backlog as quickly as we can.”

“Nobody thought this was going to be inexpensive,” he told reporters last week.