WASHINGTON (AP) — With Congress scheduled to recess in a week, the chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees offered competing proposals Thursday to fix a veterans' health care program scandalized by long patient wait times and falsified records covering up the delays.
Both proposals would scale back separate House- and Senate-passed bills after lawmakers in both parties expressed shock at price tags totaling more than $35 billion. The new proposals would still allow veterans to go to private doctors if they face long waits for appointments at VA hospitals and clinics, or if they live more than 40 miles from a VA site.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate panel, made the first move, announcing a proposal that would cost about $25 billion over three years to lease new clinics, hire thousands of doctors and nurses, and make it easier for veterans who can't get prompt appointments with VA doctors to get outside care.
The proposed price tag is $10 billion less than a bill passed by the Senate last month and nearly $20 billion less than a House-backed measure.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House veterans panel, countered hours later with a proposal that would require only $10 billion in emergency spending, with a promise of more spending in future years under the normal congressional budget process. Miller's bill would keep most of the provisions in the Senate-passed bill and also would authorize about $100 million for the Department of Veterans Affairs to address shortfalls in the current budget year.
Miller announced his plan at a hastily scheduled meeting of House and Senate negotiators who have been working on the veterans bill for more than a month. Sanders skipped the meeting, as did all Democrats on the negotiating committee except one, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz.
House Speaker John Boehner called Democrats' nonappearance at the meeting "shameful" and said that if President Barack Obama cares about America's veterans, "he needs to pick up his phone out in California and tell Senate Democrats to get to work."
Despite the partisan divide, Miller said talks on the veterans had not collapsed and that he remains optimistic a deal can be reached before Congress adjourns next week until September.
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