WASHINGTON — Lawmakers in the House and Senate unveiled an agreement Monday to reform the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs by pumping $17 billion in emergency funding into expanded access to outside care as well as more doctors, nurses and health care facilities.
The deal was struck during weekend talks between Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman, and his counterpart in the upper chamber, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., after their clash over spending last week threatened to scuttle a month-long effort by Congress to reach a compromise on VA reform.
Veterans have clamored for a speedy overhaul of the department since April, when widespread treatment delays and staff falsification of scheduling records first surfaced in the nationwide system of hospitals and clinics.
But the Miller-Sanders proposal released Monday still faces major hurdles — it must be approved by a conference committee overseeing the VA reform and passed by floor votes in the House and Senate.
The reform effort will languish through Congress’ August recess unless lawmakers can wrangle the needed support and votes by the end of this week.
“This bill makes certain that we address the immediate crisis of veterans being forced onto long wait lines for VA care,” Sanders said during a press conference Monday on Capitol Hill.
Of the $17 billion in emergency spending proposed by Miller and Sanders, $10 billion could be used to offer private health care access to veterans who have spent months waiting for treatment in the 1,700 nationwide hospitals and clinics run by the VA. The veterans would be able to request appointments at any facilities participating in Medicare.
Veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA medical facility would also be able to seek treatment from those private providers.
An additional $5 billion would go to hiring more medical staff and signing 27 leases on new hospitals and clinics in 18 states and Puerto Rico, which Sanders has claimed will be key to relieving the system bottlenecks causing treatment delays.
The most recent statistics published show more than 636,000 veterans have been waiting over a month to get care from the VA, which runs the largest integrated health care system in the United States. The system handles about 200,000 vets each day.
Under the Miller-Sanders proposal, the VA secretary would get wider powers to fire senior executives involved in records manipulation and other wrongdoing, targeting what Miller and other lawmakers see as a bureaucratic culture of corruption.
“When the secretary makes the decision to fire someone, they will immediately be fired,” Miller said during the press conference.
The senior executives would then have a week to appeal and a review board would be required to make a decision within 21 days, he said. All federal executives are now hired and fired according to an appeals process that can take months to resolve.
Investigations by the VA inspector general found that staff at 70 percent of hospitals around the country gamed the department’s computerized scheduling system to mask the long wait times. The falsified records made it appear employees were meeting a VA goal of seeing most veterans within two weeks of an appointment request, which was used as the basis for giving out bonuses and other monetary awards, according to the IG.
Miller said the deal could pass its first hurdle Monday afternoon with an approval vote by the conference committee, which is a special body of lawmakers appointed from the House and Senate to reconcile different VA bills passed in the chambers.
It must then face tea party conservatives in the House who oppose big ticket spending, but Miller said he and colleagues hope to win passage.
“We will be able to sell it through our conference,” he said. “We will probably not get a unanimous vote.”
The legislation could face a tough challenge in the Senate.
The chamber has been gridlocked by partisan rancor between Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, and Sen. Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, the GOP minority leader, that has often blocked votes on important issues.
Reid said last week he doubted a compromise could be struck and a VA bill passed, blaming the Republicans for opposing new spending on veterans.
However, the Senate did overwhelmingly pass an earlier VA reform bill in June with a 93-3 vote. The bill, sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sanders was then sent to the conference committee to be reconciled with a Miller-sponsored bill passed in the House.