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House VA Chairman Questions VA Budget Request

Senate and House squabble over VA reform

Veterans Affairs hospital in Pittsburgh / AP
• July 24, 2014 6:10 pm

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Acting Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Sloan Gibson told the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Thursday that in order to meet "current demand"  his department needs over $17 billion in additional funding.

"I believe that the greatest risk to veterans over the intermediate to long-term is that additional resources are provided only to support increased purchases of care in the community, and not to materially remedy the historic shortfall in internal VA capacity," Gibson said. "Such an outcome would leave VA even more poorly positioned to meet future demand. Today, VA’s clinical staff and space capacity are strained. Between 2009 and 2013, the number of unique veterans we treat annually has increased by over half a million. The typical veteran we treat today has on average nine major diagnoses."

"While the amount is large," Gibson added, "it represents a moderate percentage increase in annual expenditures."

The department requested last week an additional $17.6 billion, over the next three years. The request, which was unanticipated, has complicated the legislative efforts to reform the agency.

Republican lawmakers were skeptical of the request, and Chairman Joe Miller (R., Fla.) expressed frustration over the tactics used to introduce the additional funds and the information the committee received to determine whether they were appropriate.

Miller heaped up a stack of bound papers during his opening remarks to contrast the 1,300-page budget request Congress received from the president, with a single page request given by VA to explain its billion dollar request.

Miller noted that he asked the secretary to provide a "more complete review of what [VA] requested." The secretary agreed, and provided the committee with two-pages. Miller scoffed at that, telling Gibson it was inadequate for such a large monetary request.

No one on the committee, Miller told a second panel of witnesses, is saying they are not willing to give the department more money, rather they want more information and for the discussion to occur during negotiations, after the Senate has passed a bill.

"It’s not that we don’t necessarily think that the money may not be needed. It’s [that] we don’t know," Miller said.

The discussion quickly turned to the politics of the funding request.

"How did this come up right now?" Miller asked Gibson. "We’ve already got 35 billion on the table, and so now during negotiations on a conference committee report you’ve injected $17.6 [billion]."

Miller rattled off questions, suggesting that he believed his Senate counterpart, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), advocated for the increased budget requests. Gibson denied that.

"Sen. Sanders requested the information. The information, the requirement that’s being communicated here, and the request is our request," Gibson said. 

Negotiations between Sanders and Miller hit a wall today as each lawmaker offered his own proposal to reform the scandal-plagued department.

Miller held a committee conference this morning, reportedly without consulting Sanders. The move angered the Vermont senator and only one Democrat on the negotiating committee attended the meeting.

Sanders accused Republicans of taking a "take-it-or-leave it" approach and called the conference "a sad indication that the House leadership is not serious about negotiations."

"Last night […] Mr. Miller in the House, announced unilaterally, without my knowledge or without my concurrence, that he was going to hold a so-called conference committee meeting in order to introduce his proposals," Sanders said on the Senate floor.

"Needless to say, his proposal is something that I have yet to see," Sanders said. "My understanding is that he then wants to take this to the House on Monday to come up with a vote. In other words, his idea of negotiation is, we have a proposal, take it or leave it."

As today’s House hearing came to a close, Sanders was wrapping up a press conference discussing the legislative efforts, much to the ire of Miller.

"I can’t believe he unilaterally held a press conference without letting me know," Miller said, mimicking Sander’s compliant.

"The thing is, we’re not done. We did not make a take-it-or-leave-it offer," Miller added.

The chambers set a goal to pass a reform bill before the August recess.