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Spat over veterans health care emergency funds stalls spending deal

By David Lerman and Jennifer Shutt, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in Political News

But the White House's veto threat on the broader bill — which also included funding for the departments of State, Agriculture and Interior and the EPA — didn't include the VA funds in a list of specific provisions they took issue with on the first page of the document.

It wasn't clear how strongly the White House was prepared to battle for removing the exemption. A source familiar with the negotiations said Saturday the administration may be open to compromise and that talks remain fluid.

TOUGH CHOICES

With tight budget limits in place, lawmakers have wrestled for months over how to accommodate rising costs in a VA program designed to let certain veterans seek health care at private facilities outside the VA system if they would otherwise face long waits.

Exempting the program from spending limits frees up about $12.5 billion that could be used for other nondefense programs. The effect on the annual Military Construction-VA spending bill is dramatic.

By allowing the emergency designation, appropriators in both chambers were able to propose boosting the VA's fiscal 2021 budget by roughly 13 percent, meeting the White House's request for programs at that agency. Without the emergency designation, total VA discretionary funds would be slightly below the prior year's enacted level of $92.5 billion.

Increases were sought by the VA to account for a rising patient population; millions more expected outpatient visits; implementing a sweeping new electronic health records project; and new funds for mental health services and oncology.

 

The money also includes increases to meet the demands of a vast network of urgent care providers partnering with the VA to provide private care closer to where veterans live. That's a function of a 2018 law overhauling delivery systems and promoting private care options, which also transferred the costs of the new programs to appropriators rather than being funded outside the regular budget process for several years after the 2014 wait time scandal.

Without the emergency funds, appropriators would either need to jettison the VA increases requested by the White House, or find cuts within other nondefense programs. That would mean appropriators in both chambers would have to go back to the drawing board on their 12 fiscal 2021 spending bills, with a deadline for action just weeks away.

Another option is extending the current stopgap into the new calendar year to await the arrival of President-elect Joe Biden in the Oval Office. But leaders in both parties say they want to get this year's work done by next month to clear the decks for next year's agenda.

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Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.

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