AURORA | As criticism of Department of Veterans Affairs officials spreads to both parties in Washington, outspoken local lawmakers are confronted with their own complicated history with the VA.
Aurora U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, a Republican, as recently as January voted against a spending bill that would have set aside as much as $100 million for overtime and additional training for claims processors to reduce the growing backlog of veterans waiting for care. Coffman joined 66 other Republicans in the House, including Colorado congressmen Doug Lamborn, Cory Gardner and Scott Tipton, in voting against that appropriations bill. VA officials and the Obama Administration are embroiled in a nationwide controversy over shoddy medical care for veterans.
The complete spending bill included more than $1 billion in spending for health care programs related to Obamacare, which Coffman has consistently opposed. Coffman has repeatedly called for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign, primarily because of the recent scandal involving delays for medical services for thousands of veterans across the country and especially in Arizona.
Coffman released a statement regarding the vote criticizing the president and his challenger.
“This is par for the course for the Obama Administration and their allies. Nothing is ever the Obama Administration’s fault, not the Obamacare roll-out disaster, not the exploding national debt, and now not the likely-criminal behaviour of their own VA bureaucracy. To Team Obama, this is a political crisis, not a crisis for our veterans, so rather than address the crisis, they spin, deflect, and demagogue. I voted against that bill because it cut veterans benefits by a disturbing $6 billion dollars, and I think our Johnny-come-lately critic knows that,” Coffman said in a statement.
Coffman referred to a $6 billion cost-of-living adjustment in the multi-billion dollar spending bill for military retirees, which was noted by the Concerned Veterans for America in January. The Mountain States chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America selected Coffman as their legislator of the year in 2013. The Marines veteran and longtime Colorado politician is running for a fourth term to his 6th Congressional District against former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, a Democrat. The race is predicted to be one of the most expensive and competitive during the 2014 midterm election. Both sides are now targeting VA issues as election fodder.
Locally, Coffman has been critical of the VA’s handling of a replacement hospital being built in Aurora, which is the focus of a controversy about being over budget. Hundreds of millions in funding for the maligned Aurora VA hospital have also been packaged in larger spending bills that have faced opposition by Coffman and other GOP lawmakers. Two large bills that provided nearly $200 million in funding for the hospital in Aurora were opposed by Coffman in the years leading up to this most recent spate of criticism for mismanagement. A funding bill in 2009 for $119 million and a funding bill in 2011 for $42 million set aside for the VA hospital in Aurora were both opposed by Coffman. The 2011 appropriations bill would have been drafted by Republicans in control of Congress.
Romanoff is being critical of Coffman’s votes.
“The problems at the VA will be resolved not by words but by action. That means demanding accountability both from the administration and from Congress. Our veterans deserve no less,” he said in a statement.
Coffman voted in favor of a 2011 spending bill that appropriated $450 million to the VA project.
But Democrats, some of whom are now calling for Shinseki to resign, have been criticized for a lack of accountability in dealing with the VA.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, said this week that the predicament at the VA was “a management problem, not a money problem,” adding, “it’s obvious that the management team needs to be changed.”
Colorado Sen. Mark Udall asked Shinseki to step down after an initial report by the Inspector General stating that VA issues may be systemic.
“As we’ve been made aware of issues … Sen. Udall has addressed them,” said Mike Saccone, a spokesman for Udall. “The IG’s report shows that it was so widespread, Udall decided it was time to call for new leadership.”
Udall was the first Senate Democrat to call for Shinseki’s ouster. Since, other Democrats such as Minnesota Sen. Al Franken and Montana Sen. John Walsh have called for Shinseki to step aside. All three senators are facing relatively close reelection campaigns in November.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.