WASHINGTON (AP) — Stung by sticker shock, members of Congress are scrambling to lower the cost of a bill to fix veterans’ health care amid a growing uproar over long waits for appointments and falsification of records to cover up delays at Veterans Affairs hospitals.
At the same time, deficit hawks fear that letting veterans turn more to providers outside the VA for health care could cost far more if Congress, under pressure from veterans groups, decides to renew that program rather than let it expire in two years.
Lawmakers in both parties agree on the need to reform the Veterans Affairs Department’s health care network following reports of veterans dying while awaiting appointments at VA hospitals or clinics.
The resulting election-year firestorm forced VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign in May.
The VA’s inspector general has confirmed that at least 35 veterans died while awaiting appointments at the agency’s Phoenix medical center alone, but he has yet to report on the results of investigations into whether delays in treatment were responsible for any of the deaths.
The latest analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates a Senate-passed bill would cost $35 billion through 2016 to build new clinics, hire doctors and make it easier for veterans who can’t get prompt appointments with VA doctors to get outside care. The CBO put the price tag of a similar measure passed by the House at $44 billion.
More troubling for lawmakers are long-term costs. As currently designed, the legislation would relieve a big backlog of veterans awaiting appointments by letting them seek care outside the VA system, but that the expansion would expire after two years. Fiscal conservatives worried about swelling deficits fear lawmakers will yield to inevitable pressure from veterans to keep it.
“Once a benefit is provided to a large group of people it is hard to take it away, so there will be intense pressure on Congress to continue the benefit,” said Ed Lorenzen of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a Washington-based group that advocates for lower deficits.