The heads of the congressional Veterans Affairs committees announced a deal to reform the VA and Congress is expected to vote on the bipartisan measure this week.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, on Monday held a joint press conference on Capitol Hill to outline the compromise legislation they said will have broad support on both sides of the political aisle.
The $17 billion measure calls for expanding private-care options for veterans facing long wait times and commutes; hiring more doctors, nurses and other health-care workers; and improving accountability at local facilities by easing the process for firing executives. The lawmakers' announcement comes two months after Eric Shinseki resigned as VA secretary over a scandal that dozens of vets who were placed on secret lists died while awaiting treatment.
"At the end of the day, whether you're a conservative Republican or a progressive, people understand that this issue should and must go beyond politics," Sanders said. "We have people who put their lives on the line and who come back with a whole lot of problems. And it would be an absolute disgrace to this county if we did not address this. So I think there is going to be widespread support for this."
The bill's price tag includes $12 billion in new appropriations, or funding, and $5 billion in offsets, or cuts, to existing agency programs. While the added money is guaranteed to draw scrutiny, if not outright opposition, from fiscally conservative Republicans, Miller said the deal will be acceptable to his committee and the majority of the House.
"I came from a sales background, before I came to Congress," he said. "I think I can do an adequate job (of selling them on it)."
Miller said the conferees would sign off on the bill by the end of Monday. He said the House may get first crack at voting the legislation, but didn't specify when that might occur. The vote is expected to happen before Congress adjourns Friday on summer recess.
About $10 billion of the legislation's cost comes from expanding private-care options for veterans who face wait times of at least a month or commutes of at least 40 miles to the nearest VA facility. The provision is designed to give veterans an option closer to home and was included in Miller's original House version of the bill.
Another $5 billion would go toward hiring more doctors and nurses and to alleviate serious space problems at crowded VA facilities. The legislation authorizes the agency to sign leases at 27 medical facilities in 18 states and Puerto Rico. The move is designed to give veterans VA treatment options closer to home, and increase the availability of specialty care services.
Another $2 billion would pay for improving care for victims of military sexual assault, expanding a scholarship program to include surviving spouses of troops killed on duty, allowing all veterans qualify for in-state tuition regardless of where they attend school, and extending a program to provide housing for veterans diagnosed with traumatic brain injury.
Access to care has been a problem known to lawmakers for some time, but only in recent months did they learn just how serious the problem was, as whistleblowers and subsequent investigations revealed that the issue was being glossed over or covered up at facilities across the country.
Investigations confirmed whistleblower claims that dozens of veterans whose names were on unofficial and secret wait lists died before seeing a doctor. It was these revelations that prompted the lawmakers to frame legislation making it easier for the VA secretary to fire personnel, including those in the Senior Executive Service.
Under the legislation, those fired will be given a 21-day period for appeals and due process. The appeals process was Miller's concession to Sanders, who insisted on one.
"If I'd have written this [legislation] alone, the secretary would have the ability to fire the top senior-level individuals without an appeal," Miller said. "Senator Sanders wanted an appeal in there. This is a compromise that we've been able to reach."
Both lawmakers played down a flap that occurred on Friday, when Miller unilaterally convened a conference-committee meeting to float his own proposal for a final bill – a meeting attended by a single Democrat – while Sanders held a press conference surrounded by Democrats to outline his own plan.
Last week, the lawmakers criticized each other for playing politics. Today, they agreed that media hyped the incident. The two jointly announced their deal on Sunday after talking over their differences through the weekend.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org