House and Senate leaders have agreed to a compromise on legislation that would allocate $17 billion to reform the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs’ health care system. If it is approved by the full House and Senate this week, the agreement would end a lengthy standoff over the funding that at times looked to imperil any possible deal.
The bill, which is expected to be approved by a congressional conference on Monday and then voted on by both chambers before a recess begins on Friday, provides $10 billion to allow veterans facing long wait times at agency facilities to obtain private medical care. That money would also pay for private care for veterans who live more than 40 miles away from a VA facility.
In addition, $5 billion would pay in part for the hiring of new doctors and nurses to drive down patient wait times. The delays became a political scandal for the Obama administration this spring and led to the resignation of the secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, in May.
“Funding for veterans’ needs must be considered a cost of war and appropriated as emergency spending,” Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said at a news conference Monday with Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., to outline the legislation.
“Planes and tanks and guns are a cost of war,” Sanders said. “So is taking care of the men and women who use those weapons and fight our battles.”
Earlier it had appeared that tension between Sanders and Miller might derail an agreement before Congress leaves Washington this week. Most Senate Democrats boycotted a meeting called by Miller late last week to discuss his plan, causing tensions to flare. Miller’s plan called for about $10 billion in funding, while Sanders called for about $25 billion.
Miller said he was confident that he could win Republican support for the bill despite the cost.
“There will be an education process that will have to take place,” Miller said. “Obviously, some of our members will need a little more educating than others.”
The bill also authorizes the Veterans Affairs secretary to unilaterally fire any senior executive deemed incompetent. The firing would remain tentative for 21 days for due process.