Senate Passes Bill to Stop Preventable Veteran Deaths

House-Senate compromise needed before reform goes to Obama.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 04: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during a protest held by furloughed federal workers outside the U.S. Capitol to demand an end to the lockout of federal workers caused by the government shutdown October 4, 2013 in Washington, DC. Today marks the fourth day of the government shutdown as Republicans and Democrats remain at an impasse over funding the federal government. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
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Stacy Kaper
June 11, 2014, 1:52 p.m.

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.”

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