House and Senate veterans chairmen resume negotiations on effort to reduce VA patient waits

WASHINGTON – A day after offering competing plans to improve veterans’ health care, the chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees are again attempting to find a compromise.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House veterans panel, and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., had a public spat Thursday that appeared to jeopardize efforts to agree on a plan to fix a veterans’ health program scandalized by long patient wait times and falsified records covering up delays.

Miller said Friday he spoke with Sanders on Thursday night and planned to speak with him again later Friday.

“We’re working,” Miller told reporters, adding that he was “here if necessary.”

A spokesman for Sanders called the discussion “productive” and said Sanders stands ready to return to Washington if needed to advance the negotiations. He travelled to Philadelphia for a conference and was also planning to go home to Vermont.

The House and Senate are set to adjourn next week until early September, and lawmakers from both parties have said completing a bill on veterans’ health care is a top priority.

Sanders announced a proposal on Thursday that would cost about $25 billion over three years to lease new clinics, hire more doctors and nurses and make it easier for veterans who can’t get prompt appointments with VA doctors to get outside care.

Miller’s proposal would require only $10 billion in emergency spending, with a promise of more spending in future years under the normal congressional budget process. His 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.

Both bills cost significantly less than bills approved last month by the House and Senate.

Meanwhile, the House adopted a nonbinding resolution Friday that endorses a Senate-passed provision aimed at improving VA care for survivors of military sexual assault.

The resolution was sponsored by Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., who said the 213-193 vote sent a “strong message” that the House supports improving care for veterans who are victims of sexual assault. Twenty-two Republicans joined 191 Democrats in supporting the motion to accept the Senate language as part of the final bill.

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said House negotiators, led by Miller, “are continuing to work to find common ground on bipartisan, bicameral legislation to begin to address the scandalous treatment of our veterans.”