Senate Announces Bipartisan Deal to Fix the VA

The bill would give the VA chief more discretion in firing senior officials and provide funding for more doctors and new facilities.

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
Sarah Mimms
June 5, 2014, 11:19 a.m.

After a week of ne­go­ti­ations with Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers, Sen. Bernie Sanders an­nounced Thursday a bi­par­tis­an bill to fix the many is­sues plaguing the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment.

“I think all of us have been ap­palled by what we read about what happened in Phoenix and in oth­er loc­a­tions,” the in­de­pend­ent from Ver­mont said. “Every vet­er­an in this coun­try is en­titled to high-qual­ity med­ic­al care, and they should get that care in a timely man­ner.”

The new bill takes aim at the scan­dal sur­round­ing a Phoenix Vet­er­ans Af­fairs hos­pit­al, where 1,700 vet­er­ans were left off of­fi­cial wait­ing lists for med­ic­al care. The le­gis­la­tion would give Act­ing Sec­ret­ary Sloan Gib­son fur­ther dis­cre­tion in fir­ing seni­or of­fi­cials re­spons­ible for the back­log.

The House passed a sim­il­ar bill last week. But the Sen­ate bill dif­fers in that it in­cludes a pro­vi­sion, pushed by Sanders, that would give em­ploy­ees who are re­moved from the de­part­ment some due pro­cess pro­tec­tions. Any em­ploy­ee who is fired would have one week to ap­peal the de­cision, the sen­at­or said, and the “ap­pro­pri­ate body” will have three weeks to handle that claim. Sanders said he in­cluded the pro­vi­sion for fear that a fu­ture pres­id­ent could tar­get seni­or de­part­ment ex­ec­ut­ives who are aligned with an­oth­er party for ter­min­a­tion.

The Sen­ate bill, un­like the nar­row­er House le­gis­la­tion, also provides leases for the VA to build, re­fur­bish and ex­pand fa­cil­it­ies at 26 dif­fer­ent health care sys­tems in 18 states across the coun­try. It would provide $500 mil­lion to hire ad­di­tion­al doc­tors and nurses at fa­cil­it­ies that have par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult back­logs of pa­tients.

It also provides spe­cif­ic care for sexu­al-as­sault vic­tims at Vet­er­ans Af­fairs fa­cil­it­ies na­tion­wide.

In a sig­ni­fic­ant con­ces­sion to Re­pub­lic­ans, the bill would also al­low vet­er­ans who live at least 40 miles away from the nearest VA fa­cil­ity to see a doc­tor of their choice and be re­im­bursed for that care. Al­though Re­pub­lic­ans had asked that all vet­er­ans be al­lowed to vis­it non-VA fa­cil­it­ies, the fi­nal agree­ment grants this op­tion only to vet­er­ans in rur­al areas. This pro­gram would last for two years un­der a tri­al peri­od.

Sen. John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz., who lead the ne­go­ti­ations between Sanders and Re­pub­lic­ans, praised the le­gis­la­tion as a bi­par­tis­an vic­tory. But both sen­at­ors warned that much more needs to be done.

In an­oth­er po­ten­tial vic­tory for Re­pub­lic­ans, who have of­ten com­plained about the amend­ment pro­cess in re­cent months, Sanders, Mc­Cain, and even Sen. Chuck Schu­mer of New York, the third-rank­ing Sen­ate Demo­crat, said that they are open to amend­ments from either party.

But all three cau­tioned their col­leagues not to of­fer amend­ments that are un­re­lated to Thursday’s bill. “That could blow up the deal,” Schu­mer warned.

Mc­Cain also praised Sen­ate Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., for their work on the le­gis­la­tion. Mc­Cain noted that he had men­tioned Coburn as a po­ten­tial suc­cessor to former Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Sec­ret­ary Eric Shin­seki last week, “which al­most des­troyed a long and beau­ti­ful friend­ship,” he said, laugh­ing.

The Sen­ate fin­ished its busi­ness for the week earli­er on Thursday af­ter­noon. All sides have said they are hope­ful to have vote on the new Vet­er­ans Af­fairs pack­age next week.

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