Veterans’ Health Bill Set for Passage; Border Funds Stall

Congress, facing twin emergencies over military veterans’ health care and the surge of children at the U.S.-Mexico border, plans to act on one and leave the other unresolved before taking a five-week break.

Lawmakers applauded themselves for a deal to spend about $17 billion to help ease long waits for care at veterans’ hospitals. While Congress probably will pass that plan before leaving at week’s end, the parties are far apart on how to cope with unaccompanied children at the border at a time when public opinion of their work remains near record lows.

House Republicans have settled on a border plan of about $659 million that would run through September and may come to the floor for a vote July 31. It includes a change to a 2008 law that would treat children coming from Central America the same way Mexican children are treated, making it easier to send them home. Democrats oppose that change.

“While there’s good news in one sense that there’s a deal on the VA, the immigration issue is what’s been in the media most recently and what’s going to be on the minds of their constituents,” said Donna Hoffman, head of the University of Northern Iowa’s political science department. “A lot of their constituents will be clamoring for answers.”

Heading Home

Lawmakers are set to return to their home districts on Aug. 1 amid a congressional approval rating of 15 percent, according to a Gallup poll conducted July 7-10. That’s up from the record low of 9 percent in November following the first partial government shutdown in 17 years.

About 57,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended from Oct. 1, 2013, through June 15, double the total from the same time a year earlier. Most of the children are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Few Democrats will support the House border proposal because Republicans are pairing the funds with a provision making it easier to deport children from the three Central American nations. In the draft bill, the federal government would reimburse states that deploy the National Guard to the southern border, according to a Republican leadership aide.

Senate Democrats’ offer of $2.7 billion to boost border operations doesn’t have enough Republican support to pass.

Although Democrats had planned to package it with $225 million for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system in a bid for Republican support, second-ranking Senate Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois said the Israel funding may get a separate vote this week.

‘Overwhelming’ Support

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said the missile defense funds would have “overwhelming” support in both chambers.

On the veterans issue, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said he is optimistic the chamber can pass legislation this week. The Obama administration also welcomed the deal to bolster the Department of Veterans Affairs, press secretary Josh Earnest said.

The rare bipartisan agreement would authorize leases for 27 new VA facilities and expand the types of non-VA hospitals and clinics where veterans can receive care. It also would allow the VA secretary to fire senior executives, with a streamlined appeals process.

Increased payments in the deal could triple health-care providers’ revenue from the VA in the next year, according to Bloomberg Intelligence analysts Brian Friel and Jason McGorman. In 2013, HCA Holdings Inc. and Universal Health Services Inc. hospitals had the most admissions for veterans’ care among publicly traded hospitals in California, Texas and Florida, the three states with the most veterans.

Emergency Spending

The plan includes about $12 billion in emergency spending and $5 billion in offsets within the VA’s budget, said Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, and Representative Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican. The Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairmen in their respective chambers announced the deal at a news conference in Washington.

“We are here together having done something that happens quite rarely in the United States Congress,” Sanders said about the deal.

The compromise still faces a tougher sell in the Republican-led House, where lawmakers aligned with the small-government Tea Party wing have opposed attempts to spend emergency money.

“Emergency funds are code for deficit spending,” Representative Phil Roe, a Tennessee Republican, said in an interview, describing his party’s hesitation to approve such funds.

Republican Meetings

Miller said he was confident the House would pass the measure, saying he’d rely on his background in sales to win votes in his party. Miller said he’s been speaking about the measure at Republican conference meetings in recent weeks.

“Taking care of our veterans is not an inexpensive proposition and our members understand that,” Miller said.

The deal seeks to contain costs by limiting eligibility for non-VA care to veterans already enrolled in VA health-care programs, those who live far from veterans’ medical facilities and others who can’t quickly get an appointment at a VA clinic or hospital.

The agreement was reached almost two months after VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned, following an inspector general report that showed widespread mismanagement, such as keeping phony lists to hide the long waits veterans face for medical appointments. At least 35 veterans died while awaiting care in Phoenix, according to acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson.

The VA, with a $160 billion budget, runs the nation’s largest integrated health-care system. An internal audit in June showed that more than 120,000 veterans hadn’t received a medical appointment or were waiting more than 90 days for care. That number was reduced to about 42,400 by July 1, VA data show.

A Senate committee on July 23 unanimously approved former Procter & Gamble Co. Chief Executive Officer Bob McDonald to lead the VA, sending his nomination to the full Senate.

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