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Senators reach bipartisan deal to reform VA health care system

After months of contentious negotiations, Congress has announced details of the bipartisan bill to overhaul the Veterans Affairs health care system.
An American flag flies from the rucksack of soldier outside a homecoming ceremony on Fort Knox on Thursday, February 27, 2014 in Fort Knox, Ky.
An American flag flies from the rucksack of soldier outside a homecoming ceremony on Fort Knox on Thursday, February 27, 2014 in Fort Knox, Ky.

After six weeks of contentious, closed-door negotiations, the House and Senate have reached a deal to overhaul the Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system — just in time for senators to vote on a bill before they leave Washington for a monthlong break.

The compromise bill will include $17 billion in spending, with $12 billion of that as entirely new funding. Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Jeff Miller, Democratic and Republican chairmen of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees, respectively, worked through the weekend to come to an agreement.

The bipartisan deal, which Sanders and Miller unveiled at a press conference Monday, will include both long- and short-term fixes aimed at making VA “more accountable and to help the department recruit more doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals,” according to a release from Sanders and Miller. The bill will also make it easier and faster to fire or demote VA employees, although there will be a 21-day window to review appeals.

The compromise, Sanders said, "makes certain that we address the immediate crisis of veterans being forced onto long waiting lines for health care." Five-billion dollars of the measure will go toward leasing 27 new VA facilities in 18 states and Puerto Rico and be used to hire more doctors and nurses. Whistle-blowers and internal VA investigations have both cited staffing shortages as a reason for notoriously long waits for appointments, an issue at the heart of the current VA scandals.

Investigations in recent months have also uncovered widespread misconduct throughout the department’s health care system, and the agreement comes after hard-fought negotiations for an overhaul that would address major problems in the system. According to one report from a retired Phoenix VA system doctor, more than 40 veterans died while waiting for appointments. A review of the Phoenix system found that 1,700 veterans were waiting for care but had never been added to any official waiting list.

The largest portion of the proposal's funding will go toward creating a way for veterans to get care through private health care providers if there are long waits for appointments, or if they live more than 40 miles from VA medical facilities. While there is some support from veterans groups for opening up private options, others argue the answer still lies in fully investing in the VA system.

Sanders, a Democrat, has staunchly supported an increase in VA funding, and he excoriated Republican senators in February for blocking a bill aimed at improving benefits for veterans. In a statement Thursday about a potential bill, Sanders said that, while it would represent a compromise, "What it does not concede is that the cost of war is expensive and the cost of war does not end when the last shots are fired and the last missiles are launched. The cost of war continues until the last veteran receives the care and benefits that he or she has earned on the battlefield."

Veterans groups sent a letter to the leaders of both the House and Senate committees Wednesday calling on Congress to approve additional VA funding and to pass the stalled compromise legislation. The letter pointed out that the $17.1 billion in funding requested by Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson would address long-standing budget shortfalls.

“Whether it costs $17 billion or $50 billion over the next three years, Congress has a sacred obligation to provide VA with the funds it requires to meet both immediate needs through non-VA care and future needs by expanding VA’s internal capacity,” the letter said.

While a bipartisan bill is now on the table, there is still a small chance that Congress could fail to approve the deal. Miller said that he wanted to see the measure approved by the conference committee by the end of the day. Both the House and Senate still need to vote on the newly proposed legislation.