The Senate finally took steps Wednesday to respond to the health care crisis at the Veterans Affairs Department, more than two months after reports of dozens of preventable veterans deaths were first brought to light.
The Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation 93-3 that would make it easier to fire incompetent senior leaders, reprimand those who falsified health care wait-time records, hire additional VA doctors and nurses, and open additional medical facilities. The legislation would allow veterans who are more than 40 miles from a VA health care facility to seek private care. It also expands educational benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
"What this bill does is address the immediate crisis facing the VA of veterans having to wait too long a period of time — long waiting lists in order for them to get the quality care that they need in a timely manner," said Senate Veterans Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, a lead sponsor of the legislation.
"What our veterans deserve is to be able to get into the system in a timely manner and get quality care. And what this legislation does is move us forward strongly in that direction."
The Senate agreed to waive budget pay-as-you-go rules, 75-19, to pave the way for a provision in the bill to use what sums of money are necessary in fiscal 2014, 2015, and 2016 to carry out the reform measures.
And despite concerns earlier in the day, the bill's sponsors — Sanders, the Vermont independent; and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the lead Republican sponsor — were able to bring it to the floor without any votes on additional amendments.
The legislation comes on the heels of a VA audit released this week finding that 57,000 veterans have been waiting more than three months for care and that an additional 64,000 never even made it onto VA wait lists to receive care.
"If there is a definition of emergency, I would say that this legislation fits that," said McCain, ahead of the vote. "It is an emergency what is happening to our veterans and the men and women who have served this country, and we need to pass this legislation and get it to conference with the House."
The House has passed similar legislation, but the two chambers need to work out minor differences to send a bill to the president's desk.
For example, the Senate bill includes a provision to provide additional funding for doctors that is not in the House legislation. The House bill also would allow for the VA to fire officials without an appeal, unlike the Senate bill. There are also some discrepancies between the number of leases for new clinics either chamber would authorize — 27 in the House, and 26 in the Senate. The Senate bill would also expand in-state tuition benefits afforded under the Post-9/11 GI Bill further than the House bill, to widows and widowers of veterans who would have qualified.
The two chambers are expected to work out the differences quickly, given the enormous political pressure to respond to the VA health care crisis and show action before lawmakers head home for the Fourth of July recess.
When asked how hard it would be to hash out a compromise with the House, McCain said, "Not hard. This issue has so much public pressure behind it, it's hard for me to believe that this will be blocked."