Sanders, McCain reach deal on VA bill
By Martin Matishak - 06/05/14 02:16 PM EDT
Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Thursday struck a deal on legislation to reform the Veterans Affairs Department’s troubled health system amid a scandal over long wait times for treatment.
Sanders, the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee chairman, and McCain had worked the last two days on how to merge their competing bills to tackle problems within the agency.
Announcing the deal on the Senate floor, Sanders said veterans' care "should not be a political issue."
He said Americans were "appalled" by revelations that officials at facilities around the country had manipulated patient wait times, leading to long delays in care.
The compromise bill seeks to improve accountability at the department by giving the VA secretary expanded powers to fire poorly performing individuals.
Any fired senior executives would be removed immediately from the payroll. Dismissed employees would have one week to appeal the decision, with a VA merit board having three weeks to render a final decision.
The bill also incorporates a measure backed by McCain to issue veterans a "choice card" that would allow them to see a non-VA provider in some cases.
Veterans would be able to seek outside care if they cannot see an agency physician in a timely manner or if they live more then 40 miles from a VA facility. The distance exemption would last for a two-year trial basis, Sanders said.
The chairman said the measure also authorizes the construction of 27 new VA facilities in 18 states and would tap $500 million in money authorized for the VA toward hiring new doctors and nurses.
The bill also includes measures allowing in-state tuition for all veterans at public colleges and universities and improving medical care for military sexual assault victims. Surviving spouses of former servicemembers would also be eligible for more VA benefits.
McCain, speaking on the floor after Sanders, urged his colleagues to “pledge to seeing this thing all the way through.”
The Arizona senators told reporters earlier Thursday that he and Sanders had worked out all the differences between the two bills, but he hoped the legislation could be improved further by the amendment process.
"I want to have amendments," McCain said.
McCain said he did not expect a vote today with a dozen senators preparing to head to Europe to mark the D-Day anniversary.
The compromise on VA reform comes following the resignation of Secretary Eric Shinseki after the agency’s inspector general confirmed charges that officials at a Phoenix clinic had lied about patient wait times. A White House-mandated audit also found fraudulent practices at a number of VA facilities around the country.
The IG report found veterans at a Phoenix hospital had waited an average of 115 days for an initial primary care appointment, while official data falsely claimed the wait was only 24 days.
The House last month overwhelmingly passed legislation that gave the VA secretary expanded powers to fire officials for poor performance, but that effort stalled in the Senate amid competing bills.
Sanders had prepared a bill that would grant the VA secretary new powers to fire senior executives and allow veterans to seek treatment at non-VA providers in some cases.
But Republican lawmakers rallied behind a similar measure from McCain, which included the House language, leading Sanders to postpone a hearing Wednesday on his measure in hopes of hashing out a compromise.
Some Democrats have expressed concerns over new firing powers, questioning if the measures weaken federal employee work protections.