Senators reach bipartisan deal on VA bill
The bipartisan agreement comes less than a week after Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki was forced to resign when investigators reported that thousands of veterans were routinely subjected to long delays before they could get the care they needed, and that employees took extensive steps to cover up the problem. Polls showed outraged public reaction to the revelations, and Congress was under growing pressure to address the issue.
"Right now we have a crisis on our hands, and it's imperative that we deal with that crisis," Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders (I., Vt.) said as he announced the deal.
Despite expected opposition from some conservatives concerned about the cost of the deal, chances of passage are good given the public uproar over the scandal and the political goodwill that veterans issues enjoy on Capitol Hill. The House has already passed several of the management reforms.
"This is not a perfect document," McCain said, but he praised Sanders' efforts, describing his colleague as a "fighter."
Both senators heralded the deal as a rare opportunity for lawmakers to show Americans that Congress can act swiftly in response to a government scandal. Aware of the difficult partisan climate in Congress, they also implored their colleagues not to delay consideration of the bill. One potential hang-up is how to cover the cost.
"Can we sort of pledge that we are committed to seeing this all the way through?" McCain said.
The pact merges about a dozen major proposals advanced by lawmakers in recent weeks. Republicans have strongly supported giving the VA secretary stronger firing powers and veterans more flexibility to seek medical care outside the VA system. Sanders and supportive Democrats have been seeking to revive a far-reaching veterans' bill that was defeated in February by Republicans.
A key provision of the deal, already approved by the House, would allow the VA secretary to clear out the department's clotted bureaucracy by immediately firing or demoting senior officials tied to mismanaged or delayed medical care for veterans.
The worker would be immediately removed from the payroll, but the Senate deal gives the worker up to seven days to appeal the decision to the Merit Systems Protection Board.
The accord would give veterans greater flexibility to seek medical care at facilities not run by VA if they are experiencing long wait times or live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA hospital or clinic. Veterans could choose instead to seek care at other sites, including at private facilities that accept Medicare and federally qualified health centers.
The bill would authorize the VA to sign leases for 26 major medical facilities in 18 states (none in Pennsylvania, one in Brick, N.J.) and Puerto Rico and to spend $500 million on new doctors and nurses with expedited hiring authority to meet growing demand for medical care from older, aging veterans and younger veterans trying to adapt to civilian life after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Aides said the legislation would be paid for with emergency supplemental spending that exceeds budget limits approved earlier this year - a move that might keep dozens of fiscally conservative Republicans from supporting the deal.
In other developments:
The VA's acting secretary said an additional 18 veterans in the Phoenix area whose names were kept off an official electronic VA appointment list have died Sloan Gibson, who toured the Phoenix hospital Thursday, said he did not know whether the 18 new deaths were related to long waiting times for appointments but said they were in addition to the 17 reported last month.
President Obama's pick to be the top health official at the VA withdrew his nomination, saying he feared a prolonged battle. Jeffrey Murawsky, health-care chief for the VA's Chicago-based regional office, oversees seven VA hospitals and 30 clinics, including one outside Chicago where there are allegations that its staff used secret lists to conceal long appointment wait times.
This article contains information from the Associated Press.