With the August recess rapidly approaching, Congress has apparently reached a deal on a bill to begin repairing the Veterans Affairs health care system. It was either that or go back to member constituents and explain why bipartisanship support couldn’t produce a solution.
This deal should’ve been reached a month ago, after each chamber passed its version. The delay matters, because the Congressional Budget Office may not have a chance to assess the financial impact of the compromise. But thoughtful legislating isn’t in vogue these days.
The compromise was announced Monday. The tentative plan would provide the VA with an estimated $17.6 billion over three years, with $5 billion of that offset by cuts in other parts of the budget. About $10 billion would allow veterans to access private care if they cannot get a timely appointment at the VA. Another $5 billion would go toward hiring more doctors and nurses to help reduce the appointments backlog. Also, administrators would be given more leeway to fire employees and move staff around as needed.
All of that sounds good, as far as it goes. The appointments crisis is real, and deserves a quick response. But another VA crisis looms unless Congress takes a more cautious approach to the expansion of veterans’ benefits.
“The VA isn’t sacred, but the veteran is,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who helped hammer out the weekend compromise.
That’s a nice election-year sound bite, one with serious implications for other parts of the VA budget. The agency spends nearly as much on disability payments as health care despite a decrease in the veteran population. Annual payments have doubled to $49 billion as the rules on qualifying for disability have been liberalized.
Disability payments are determined by totaling up the illnesses and/or injuries of each applicant. The number of qualifying maladies keeps growing, and veterans are encouraged to list them all. Vets with tinnitus (ringing in the ears), sleep apnea and diabetes can increase their payments. Veterans groups lobbied to add Type 2 diabetes, even though no link to military service has been proved. As a result, the number of vets compensated for diabetes has risen from 46,395 to 398,480, according to the Los Angeles Times.
As former VA Secretary Anthony Principi said about the diabetes decision, “The feeling was, let’s give them what they want and move on.”
Nobody gets votes saying “no” to veterans, and there should be no limit to the resources committed to those who have suffered the most grievous wounds, as well as to their families. But Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other Pentagon officials are raising concerns that expanding benefit costs will compromise the combat readiness of our active-duty armed forces.
Nobody wants that, least of all veterans, who understand better than anyone the value of the best equipment and the best training.
The United States commitment to our men and women in uniform – past, present and future – must be sustainable. Congress should not wait for another crisis to find the proper balance.
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