The measure, with slightly differing versions passed by both the
Senate and House of Representatives, would allow veterans a two-year
period to seek private care at the Department of Veteran Affairs'
expense if forced to endure long waits at the agency's facilities or
if they live more than 40 miles away.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller said
Republicans on a negotiating panel want to find savings to offset
the costs of the measure, but they believe the Congressional Budget
Office estimates are unrealistic.
The non-partisan CBO issued a preliminary estimate that these
provisions would cost the Department of Veterans Affairs $35 billion
through 2016, and if left in place therafter would about $50 billion
A CBO spokeswoman was not immediately available to comment on the
estimate. The agency had previously said the bill's budgetary
effects were "highly uncertain" because of difficulty in predicting
behavioral changes among veterans due to increased access to private
With fresh government reports detailing deeper problems with VA
mismanagement this week, lawmakers want to pass a final version of
the VA legislation as quickly as possible. But disputes over money
could slow things down.
Several lawmakers at an initial meeting of House and Senate
negotiators said the estimate improperly assumed that about 8
million eligible veterans not yet enrolled in the system would seek
VA care, nearly doubling its patient population.
"Is the CBO product that they've produced reflective of anything
sane?" asked Senator Richard Burr, the top Republican on the Senate
Veterans Affairs Committee.
"This is ludicrous. This is impossible for us even to start an
intelligent discussion on what we put in legislation when we've got
numbers that are just so grossly out of line," he said.
[to top of second column]
Miller said he would press CBO for a "realistic" cost estimate and
anticipates a new one that is significantly lower.
"We want to try to find the offsets necessary to pay for the
legislation. That's not going to be an easy task, but it's one we're
committed to looking fully at over the next several days," Miller
Finding more than $35 billion in budget savings would be a difficult
task at any time, but could especially be problematic this summer,
as lawmakers are already scrounging for savings to fund highway
Miller declined to estimate a timeframe for a funding deal, but said
he hoped to reach consensus on broad parameters of the measure
before Congress leaves for a July 4 break on Friday. The measure
also provides the VA with greater authority to fire poor performing
(Reporting By David Lawder; Editing by Diane Craft)
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