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Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., , speaks to reporters in Washington on Wednesday about reforming the health care system responsible for treating veterans. / J. Scott Applewhite, AP

WASHINGTON - Veterans Affairs Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson told a House panel Thursday the agency has focused more on meeting budget targets than the needs of veterans.

"In the private sector, this would be a routine side of the business," Gibson told the House Veterans Affairs Committee. "You'd be managing to requirements. We manage to a budget number instead."

That, he said, led to "bungled" care.

The admission came just as both the Senate and House announced discussions on a compromise in a veterans bill that would provide private care to those who faced long wait times at VA facilities. The bill had been hung up after Gibson requested an additional $17.6 billion to address VA's problems.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said his compromise seeks money to offset some costs.

"What it does not concede is that the cost of war is expensive and does not end when the last shots are fired and the last missiles are launched," Sanders said in a press statement. "The cost of war continues until the last veteran receives the care and benefits that he or she has earned on the battlefield."

The compromise lowers the original costs of the bill to $25 billion, and provides $3.3 billion in savings from other areas of VA. Veterans would receive a Veterans Choice Card that would allow them to access care from a private provider; would provide funds for infrastructure, IT and provider hiring; and would authorize VA to fire inept senior leaders.

The compromise discussions have also led to bickering between House Republicans, led by Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, and Senate Democrats.

"Senate Democrats refused to even show up and discuss bipartisan solutions, preferring instead to talk behind closed doors," Boehner said, adding that the House passed a "bipartisan" veterans bill.

Sanders called the committee hearing a "partisan gambit, saying that the House took a "take-it-or-leave-it" approach, rather than offering a conversation or compromise.

Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican and chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said he offered to take up the Senate bill through regular procedures before the House agreed to give the VA more money. That, he said, would have to come through the regular appropriations process.

"Senator Sanders believes that the only way to get that $17.6 billion is by putting it in this bill," Miller said. "I have assured him that is not the case."

VA doctors need to see more patients, expand their office hours and create more efficiencies, Miller said. He said the issue was not partisan, though the conversations have focused almost entirely on funding.

Congress is now more focused on cutting costs than providing care, said Ryan Gallucci, a lobbyist for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Miller told Gibson during a committee hearing that he needed more than a three-page document before he would consider approving the VA's funding request.

Gibson said VA evaluated their system to see what was necessary to kill the wait times, end the practice of falsifying documents and ensure veterans could get care in rural areas.

"The request is our request," Gibson said, in response to Miller's questions about whether the figure came from President Obama.

Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, said Gibson's revelation did not surprise him.

"I believe that they have always operated the department on the budget they had, and not what they needed to take care of the veterans," Michaud said. Still, he expressed concern that the additional funds be properly managed - and not in excess of what is necessary.

"If I think resources are required, I'm going to ask for them," Gibson said. "But I told the internal staff, 'Don't you ask for one thing that you can't justify.' "

He said the money would fund new information technology to modernize VA's records system, as well as hire 10,000 new health providers.

VA has often asked for insufficient resources, said Carl Blake, a lobbyist for the Paralyzed Veterans of America, and Congress, the Obama administration and presidents before them are responsible.

The agency needs money to fix its problems and end a "culture of secrecy," Gallucci said.

"In recent weeks, some legislators have backed off, caring more about the cost of the legislation than the veterans who are waiting for care," he said. "If Congress fails to pass this legislation before the recess, our members will hold their representatives accountable during the August recess."

Follow @kellyskennedy on Twitter.



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Congress discusses compromise for veterans bill

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