– Outrage over the Department of Veterans Affairs health care scandal has been bipartisan, with Republicans and Democrats united in their disgust over long wait times, phony records and accusations of criminal activity at the agency.

Bills passed by the GOP-led House and Democratic-controlled Senate would allow millions of veterans to seek health care outside the government’s system if they are unable to get a timely appointment inside it.

But in an election year, cracks in that unity are starting to appear as candidates seek a political edge.

In Minnesota’s First Congressional District, GOP challenger Aaron Miller has stepped up his criticism of U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, accusing him of failing to protect veterans. Walz, a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, is the lone Minnesotan on the House-Senate conference committee hammering out the reform bill.

“If you think this is one administration’s problem or one Congress’ issue, you’re wrong,” said Walz, a retired National Guard command sergeant major.

Miller, also a war veteran, said he holds Walz “to a higher standard because he is a veteran.”

The problem of long waits to see VA doctors is not new. A 2003 task force report under President George W. Bush found a list of 236,000 veterans waiting for primary or follow-up care.

The turn toward politicizing the scandal is causing some to worry that partisanship could make it more difficult to fix problems in the VA system.

The fallout is playing a role in congressional races across the country, from Northern California to North Carolina.

Republican-backed groups, such as Crossroads GPS, have aimed ads at Democratic senators in key Senate races in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Hampshire and Virginia, urging them to support overhaul legislation. The nonprofit organization backs conservative causes.

Democratic-leaning organizations have hit back, pressuring GOP House members to explain their past votes against proposals for more money for veterans programs.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said veterans’ issues long have had strong bipartisan support in Congress, but he worries that political gamesmanship could taint that tradition.

Miller, who calls Walz a trusted adviser and friend, said Walz’s party matters less to him than his experience as a veteran.

“It’s important for me to have his input because he’s been there,” Miller said of Walz. “When you’re talking about veterans’ issues, politics should not play into it at all.”

Reform costs

Costs could further complicate the work of the 28-member conference committee trying to hash out a deal.

The House proposal to let ailing veterans avoid long waits and seek care in private medical facilities could cost taxpayers $35 billion over the next decade, according to a new Congressional Budget Office analysis. The Senate bill could cost up to $50 billion.

The price tags have slowed negotiations over the proposed legislation to provide a private option and reignited a long-standing debate over funding for the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs’ health system.

Funding for the VA has increased roughly 68 percent since 2009, allowing President Obama’s critics to argue that the problem is poor management, not money. The current $160 billion budget represents a record level of spending.

“This is an infected bureaucracy that is very good at serving itself and not very good at serving veterans,” said Pete Hegseth, an Iraq war veteran who heads Concerned Veterans for America, which is pushing reform legislation. Walz and Hegseth agree that the proposed legislation would increase accountability and add options for veterans facing long waits for care.

Backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, Hegseth’s group has aired television ads against congressional incumbents for “failing to co-sponsor” the House version of the VA reform legislation. Walz is not among the targets.

While many lawmakers are angling to reach an agreement before Congress leaves D.C. for its August recess, Walz warned against rushing to approve a short-term solution.

“I’m not certain we’ve diagnosed the problem,” Walz said. Passing legislation, then going home to “clap everyone on the back and say the VA is going to function perfectly” is “not going to happen,” he said.

Republican Jim Hagedorn, who is challenging the GOP-endorsed Miller in the August primary, said the problems have worsened during the Obama administration.

“Our veterans shouldn’t have to go off … to fight the enemy and then come and have to fight the bureaucrats,” Hagedorn said.

Fewer veterans in Congress

According to a national VA audit, more than 57,000 veterans have had to wait more than three months for their first medical appointments, while 64,000 others never received their requested appointments.

VA clinics in Minneapolis and Rochester were among 112 VA clinics around the country flagged for “further review and investigation” in an internal audit of the system’s wait times released in June.

Walz is among a dwindling number of members of Congress, who are veterans. Only 20 percent of congressional members have served in the military, according to numbers compiled by the House Armed Services Committee. In 1976, nearly 80 percent were veterans, American Legion records show.

“Being a veteran doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to build the coalitions to get things done,” Walz said. “It allows you to see that perspective. Not as many people know veterans and because of that it’s easier to lose focus.”


Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune’s Washington Bureau. Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell