Senators reach bipartisan deal on bill to fix VA

June 5, 2014

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Updated and corrected 4:06 p.m.

Senators announced a sweeping bipartisan agreement Thursday to address several issues at the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs with hopes of approving the agreement next week and sending it to the House for swift approval.

The agreement would allow veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or who are experiencing long wait times to seek care at other government or private medical facilities. Senators also propose providing $500 million for VA to hire more doctors and nurses to meet growing demand nationwide.

"Right now we have a crisis on our hands and it’s imperative that we deal with that crisis," Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said as he announced the deal Thursday afternoon.

The announcement capped four days of talks between Sanders, a Brooklyn-born self-described socialist, and a group of Republicans led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose home state has been ground zero for the most damning allegations of VA mismanagement. A deal materialized less than a week after former Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki resigned in disgrace in response to watchdog reports that confirmed allegations of delayed care for thousands of military veterans.

Since Shinseki's departure, the department has reached out to all of the approximately 1,700 veterans that a Phoenix VA hospital placed on unofficial wait lists that hid treatment delays. Acting Secretary Sloan D. Gibson visited the Phoenix facility Thursday. The department is also facing a Office of Special Counsel investigation into allegations that officials retaliated against 37 whistleblowers, including some who tried to report actions related to the recent scheduling scandal.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have faced increasing pressure from voters to quickly find ways to overhaul the department as public opinion polls report near-unanimous national outrage over the allegations.

If passed, the agreement will allow eligible veterans to use non-VA medical care 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 visit private facilities that accept Medicare or seek care at federally-qualified health centers, Indian Health Centers or medical facilities run by the Defense Department.

The bill would authorize VA to sign leases for 26 major medical facilities in 18 states and Puerto Rico and to spend $500 million hiring new doctors and nurses with expedited hiring authority. Those changes would help the VA address burgeoning demand for medical care from older, aging veterans and younger ones adapting to life after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Adopting a popular proposal already passed by the House and strongly supported by veterans' groups, the bill would allow the VA secretary to immediately fire or demote senior officials tied to mismanaged or delayed medical care for veterans. The worker would be immediately removed from the payroll but, in a nod to concerns that career government employees were at risk of losing their due process rights, the worker would have up to seven days to appeal the decision to the Merit Systems Protection Board, a federal panel that hears such appeals. The board would have three weeks to issue a decision.

"This is not a perfect document," McCain said as he joined Sanders on the Senate floor to announcement the agreement. He heralded the deal as a rare opportunity for lawmakers to show frustrated Americans that Congress can act swiftly in response to growing national outrage. But as he invited Democrats and Republicans to propose suggested amendments to the legislation, he begged them not to delay consideration of the bill.

"Can we sort of pledge that we are committed to seeing this all the way through? I would urge our colleagues to do that," he said. "Let's not get hung up on certain other aspects of our differences that most people would view as gridlock in this body."

McCain also praised Sanders's efforts. “Bernie Sanders is a fighter, and it’s been a pleasure to do combat with him,” he said.

The comprehensive deal merges a dozen major proposals advanced by House and Senate 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.

In addition to changing the VA's firing powers and providing more funding for facilities and employees, the agreement would expand medical care to veterans who were raped or sexual assaulted while in the ranks; provide further tuition assistance to military veterans who joined the ranks after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks; and establish three new independent commissions to review VA's scheduling, construction and technology needs.

But in a sign that the legislation could face challenges in the often-fractured Congress, aides said that the legislation would be paid for with emergency supplemental spending that exceeds spending limits approved earlier this year -- something that might keep dozens of fiscally conservative Republicans from supporting the deal.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who supports giving the VA secretary new firing powers, said in a statement that he would carefully review the bill and is "optimistic" that Congress will quickly pass "important reforms."

The agreement is expected to be debated by the full Senate as early as next week and then be sent to the House, which has passed at least nine measures in recent months to improve veterans' education, employment and health care. The House Veterans Affairs Committee also plans to hear testimony Monday evening from official watchdog agencies about patient scheduling mishaps at VA facilities.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report incorrectly said under terms of the bipartisan agreement, eligible veterans could opt into the Medicare program. Instead, veterans would have the option of visiting private facilities that accept Medicare. The story has been corrected.

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.
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