WASHINGTON — Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Walz said Tuesday a plan to pump $17 billion into the Veterans Affairs department to relieve chronic wait time problems is a good compromise and one that could lead to bigger reform measures down the road.
The deal, reached this weekend by House and Senate negotiators, would spend $10 billion to let veterans receive health care from private providers if they’re unable to do so at VA clinics. It also invests $5 billion to hire new doctors and nurses for the system, which has been plagued by lengthy wait times nationwide.
The wait time problem created a scandal that briefly consumed Congress earlier this summer, leading to the ouster of VA secretary Eric Shinseki. The Senate confirmed former Procter & Gamble executive Bob McDonald as his replacement on Tuesday. An audit of the VA system said inspectors should investigate wait times and potential internal problems at 112 hospitals and clinics nationwide, including clinics in Minneapolis and Rochester.
This week’s deal, which could clear Congress before lawmakers break for recess at the end of the week, is meant to alleviate care backlogs by allowing veterans to visit private clinics when care at VA hospitals is unavailable to them. The Senate had hoped to spend $35 billion on a VA reform package, but lawmakers pared that total back.
“This is the way things should be done,” said Walz, the only Minnesotan on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “There was an honest give-and-take, the goal was always to make sure the veterans’ care, and timely care, came first, and I think the good news about this is not only do I think we addressed that, but I think we also started to lay the groundwork for some real reform inside the system, some better accountability, which I think is what everyone wants.”
The bill establishes a commission to study the VA’s workload, which Walz said could help guide lawmakers toward future VA reform.
“This gives us the opportunity to do a reset, to keep the stuff that’s working well but to try and improve it,” he said.
The bill will likely pass with relative ease, but if it loses any support from lawmakers, it may be because it adds to the federal deficit. Much of the bill is considered emergency spending and isn’t offset with spending cuts elsewhere, and Rep. Jeff Miller, the top Republican on the bill’s negotiating committee, said he will have to “sell it to [the GOP] conference” before the bill comes to the floor.
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“There will be an education process that will have to take place and some of our members will need a little more educating than others,” he said at a Monday press conference.
Walz, for one, said he’s not concerned with the approach.
“There are certain functions of government — caring for those who went to war is probably one of them — and this need arose as an emergency and the need to get that done is important,” Walz said. “The bill certainly won’t be pulled down over it.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry