Congress seeks to hammer out fix to veterans’ health care

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 15, 2014 - 10:29 PM

Walz warns against a rush to short-term solutions for troubled agency.

– 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.

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