Last February, before the Veterans Affairs health care scandal broke, Sen. Bernard Sanders, chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, joined with 28 Democratic co-sponsors to offer a bill increasing funding for the VA by $20 billion -- even though the agency had failed to use all the money Congress had given it in the form of big budget increases in recent years.
Sanders' bill, S.1982, officially titled the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014, was a hodgepodge of several previous bills. "The package would improve VA health care and dental care, expand educational opportunities, help the VA address a disability claims backlog and help veterans find jobs," Sanders' office said.
The bill would essentially offer VA health care services to all veterans, including those who do not have service-related problems and have incomes above current cutoff levels. It would also greatly expand a program that pays caregivers of disabled veterans a monthly stipend. Congress originally passed the measure for veterans of post-Sept. 11 wars; Sanders would expand it to all veterans.
The caregivers provision is one of the single most expensive features of the bill, and it was put into the legislation over the objections of the Department of Veterans Affairs itself, which believes it would cost even more than Sanders estimated. "VA believes the expansion of benefits to caregivers of eligible veterans of all eras would make the program more equitable,” the agency noted in a statement on cost. “Unfortunately, core health-care services to veterans would be negatively impacted without the additional resources necessary to fund the expansion.”
There are lots of other provisions in the bill. For example, Sanders is a big fan of what is sometimes called "complementary," or alternative medicine. So the bill contains the following provisions:
Sec. 331. Expansion of research and education on and delivery of complementary and alternative medicine to veterans.
Sec. 332. Program on integration of complementary and alternative medicine within Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers.
Sec. 333. Studies of barriers encountered by veterans in receiving, and administrators and clinicians in providing, complementary and alternative medicine services furnished by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Sec. 334. Program on use of wellness programs as complementary approach to mental health care for veterans and family members of veterans.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated the bill would cost about $21 billion over the next decade. The additional spending was particularly controversial on Capitol Hill because the VA is, at the moment, unable to spend all the health care money Congress has already given it. In obscure budget notices in the past several years, the VA has informed Congress that it planned to "carryover" unspent medical care funds from one year to the next. According to a Senate Republican analysis, the VA plans to carryover $450 million from Fiscal Year 2014 to Fiscal Year 2015. The year before, FY13 to FY14, it carried over $543 million. From FY12 to FY13, it carried over $636 million. From FY11 to FY12, it carried over $1.16 billion. And from FY10 to FY11, it carried over $1.45 billion.
And now Sanders and his fellow Democrats want to give the VA billions more. And by the way, to pay for the new bill, Sanders resorted to the now-familiar ruse of using money that won't be spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- as if spending on those wars would continue forever and re-directing it to veterans' uses would be budget-neutral.
And so on. What is striking about Sanders' bill is not just its price tag but how irrelevant it is to the most serious problems besetting the VA health care system. It was like adding new chrome to a car that won't run. When Republicans stopped the bill earlier this year, Democrats predictably accused them of being insensitive to veterans' needs. Now, with the VA scandal raging on Capitol Hill, look for these proposals to pop up again. It's unclear what Congress will do, but one certainty in the debate is that the Sanders bill won't solve the problem.