How Congress Plans to Fix the VA

Lawmakers rolled out long-awaited legislation Monday that aims to boost funding and give veterans greater access to outside care.

PHOENIX, AZ - MAY 08: Exterior view of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center on May 8, 2014 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Department of Veteran Affairs has come under fire after reports of the deaths of 40 patients forced to wait for medical care at the Phoenix VA hopsital.
National Journal
July 28, 2014, 10:21 a.m.

De­term­ined to prove bi­par­tis­an­ship is still alive, law­makers rolled out le­gis­la­tion Monday to fix the em­battled Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment that in­cludes com­prom­ises from both sides of the aisle.

“It goes without say­ing that we have a VA that is in crisis today. This agree­ment will go a long way to re­solve the crisis,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, chair­man of the House Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee.

The bill provides $17 bil­lion to the VA, a ma­jor­ity of which will go to­ward ex­pand­ing ac­cess to private health care for vet­er­ans out­side VA fa­cil­it­ies. The le­gis­la­tion also calls for hir­ing more clini­cians, leas­ing more VA fa­cil­it­ies, and mak­ing it easi­er to fire VA staffers.

The con­fer­ence com­mit­tee has been work­ing to ne­go­ti­ate a com­prom­ise bill between the House and Sen­ate ver­sions, but talks ap­peared to be all but over at the end of last week. However, law­makers said Sunday that they had made sig­ni­fic­ant pro­gress over the week­end.

“Con­gress is very di­vided right now. The House has its views, and the Sen­ate has its views, and Jeff and I had to work through these things,” said Sen­ate Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Chair­man Bernie Sanders on Monday, adding that law­makers have a “mor­al ob­lig­a­tion” to get the le­gis­la­tion passed.

Law­makers ex­pect the con­fer­ence com­mit­tee to sign off on the pro­pos­al Monday, in their quest to have the le­gis­la­tion wrapped up by the Au­gust re­cess.

“This VA con­fer­ence com­mit­tee le­gis­la­tion “¦ is far from what I would have writ­ten if I had to do it alone, and I sus­pect it’s fair to say that that it’s far from what Chair­man Miller would have done,” Sanders said at Monday’s press con­fer­ence.

The fund­ing pro­posed Monday is sig­ni­fic­antly lower than the amount Sanders out­lined in le­gis­la­tion last week.

In a back and forth between the House and Sen­ate VA com­mit­tees Thursday, the Ver­mont in­de­pend­ent took to the Sen­ate floor and said House law­makers were “not ser­i­ous about ne­go­ti­ations.” Sanders es­tim­ated that his pro­pos­al would cost un­der $25 bil­lion. Sanders’s le­gis­la­tion in­cluded money for staff­ing, in­fra­struc­ture, in­form­a­tion tech­no­logy, and a two-year pro­gram that would in­crease vet­er­ans’ ac­cess to non-VA care.

But Miller rolled out a com­pet­ing pro­pos­al at an open con­fer­ence com­mit­tee meet­ing later on Thursday, in which the Flor­ida Re­pub­lic­an offered $10 bil­lion to the de­part­ment to ex­pand vet­er­ans’ ac­cess to private care and build new fa­cil­it­ies.

The VA has been un­der fire in re­cent months amid an ever-grow­ing scan­dal that in­cludes al­leg­a­tions of data ma­nip­u­la­tion at med­ic­al fa­cil­it­ies and dis­ab­il­ity claims of­fices, and of vet­er­ans dy­ing while wait­ing for care.

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