Lawmakers Reach Deal on VA Reform

VA Healthcare

Key House and Senate lawmakers have reached a deal that promises to end the partisan battle that late last week threatened to derail plans to get a Department of Veterans Affairs reform bill passed before Congress adjourns for the summer.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, who co-chair a legislation conference committee, will announce Monday "that an agreement has been reached to deal with both the short-term and long-term needs of the VA," Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs said.

Sanders serves as chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and Miller chairs the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

Offices for both lawmakers released announcements on Sunday saying the two had worked through the weekend and made "significant progress" on legislation intended to hold the VA more accountable and recruit more doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals.

The two sides have agreed to add $15 billion in emergency mandatory spending to the legislation, according to CQ Roll Call, which got hold of a summary of the agreement. The amount includes $10 billion to enable vets to get care from private providers and $5 billion to hire medical staff and upgrade facilities.

On Friday, Miller proposed $10 billion in emergency funding. Sanders had wanted $17.6 billion, a figure requested by Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson earlier this month.

In recent months, VA investigations prompted by whistleblower complaints have confirmed that the department has for years fallen far short of providing timely access to care for thousands of veterans. The investigation also confirmed systemic manipulation of patient data and secret appointment wait lists intended to conceal the scope of the problem.

Lawmakers have threatened to pursue criminal charges against VA officials after investigations found dozens of veterans have died while waiting for care.

The Senate and House in June passed bills intended to hold officials accountable, to include making it easier to fire problem executives and improve access to care by enabling more veterans to go outside the VA.

Lawmakers from the House and Senate veterans' committees began conferring to come up with a single bill that could pass, but the work stalled, in particular over the $17.6 billion that Gibson said was needed to resolve the access problem.

Miller and other GOP lawmakers, as well as some veterans groups, said the VA offered no substantive documentation to back up the $17.6 billion figure.

Late last week, both Sanders and Miller released separate proposals for final legislation -- Miller during a hastily called conference committee meeting that only Republicans attended and Sanders during a press conference attended by Democrats.

As the talks fumbled into bickering, there was concern that no deal would be reached before Congress goes on summer break.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@monster.com.

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