- Long-term costs for new law could hamper future budget talks
- Administration hasn’t submitted estimate for VA MISSION Act
Lawmakers say the Trump administration has kept them in the dark about the cost of a new law on veterans’ health care, a looming long-term expenditure that could complicate future budget negotiations.
Trump signed into law a fiscal 2019 Military Construction-VA spending bill last week in a three-bill appropriations package (H.R. 5895), which includes $1.75 billion in discretionary money to pay for the health law, in addition to the last of the program’s mandatory funding.
“For the first time in American history, I am about to sign a bill that will fully and permanently give our great and cherished veterans choice so you don’t have to wait in a line for 18 days to take care of a simple” ailment, Trump said at a bill signing ceremony in Nevada last week.
But Boozman and others said they still haven’t received details from the administration on the department’s plan to carry out the new law. That means lawmakers aren’t sure if the $1.75 billion, based on a Congressional Budget Office estimate, will be enough to pay for the program until the end of fiscal 2019, or how much the program will cost in later years.
The CBO estimated the new law will cost $46.5 billion from fiscal 2019 to 2023.
The House and Senate Appropriations committees’ joint explanatory statement for the Military Construction-VA say the program will switch to discretionary from mandatory funding as early as May 2019, but that the administration hasn’t given a cost estimate for the new law. The measure directs the department to report monthly to lawmakers on the cost of its health care coverage at non-VA facilities.
“We don’t know the actual cost because we don’t have the details from the administration on the transition to a discretionary program,” Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), ranking member of the House Appropriations Military Construction-VA Subcommittee, told reporters earlier this month, shortly before the House passed the funding bill.
Even if the spending measure has enough money for the program until the end of fiscal 2019, lawmakers will have to determine how much the new law will cost in future years. Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said the cost over the next few years will be “a lot of money, up to 50, 60 billion bucks, maybe more.”
Lawmakers acted in February to raise spending caps under the Budget Control Act (Public Law 112-25) for fiscal 2018 and 2019. The negotiations over caps for fiscal 2020 and 2021 may center largely on allowing enough spending on VA health care without requiring cuts to other discretionary programs. The spending caps end after fiscal 2021. Fully funding the VA’s new Veterans Community Care Program without cutting money elsewhere would cost $55 billion over the next decade, according to an estimate by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
House lawmakers plan to vote Wednesday on the final version of a bill covering defense and Labor-HHS-Education appropriations (H.R. 6157), along with a continuing resolution funding other agencies at fiscal 2018 levels through Dec. 7.
The House Rules Committee is scheduled to meet later this afternoon to draw up a rule to consider the conference report.
Lawmakers have yet to reach a deal on a spending package (H.R. 6147) covering Interior-Environment, Financial Services, Transportation-HUD and Agriculture-FDA.
To contact the reporter on this story: Jack Fitzpatrick in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org