WASHINGTON — Sens. Bernard Sanders and John McCain announced a bipartisan bill Thursday to address the recently revealed deficiencies at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The bill would allocate money for more VA doctors and new care facilities while empowering the department’s secretary to fire incompetent executives. Sanders, I-Vt., said the bill represents a compromise between the more partisan proposals he and McCain, R-Ariz., presented separately Tuesday.
“Reaching a compromise among people who look at the world very differently is not easy,” Sanders said. “But in this process, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and I have tried our best to come forward with an agreement.”
The bill provides money for construction of 26 major medical facilities in 18 states deemed in need of expanded coverage. It also contains $500 million to bring more doctors and nurses into the VA system. The cost of the proposal is estimated at around $2 billion and would be paid for with emergency funds, according to a Sanders spokesman.
Beyond increased funding, the bill would allow the VA secretary to fire or demote high-level employees based on poor performance, though they would have one week to appeal their dismissal.
Another provision would allow veterans to seek care outside the VA if they experience long wait times or if they live more than 40 miles from a VA hospital. That would be a pilot program lasting two years before evaluation, Sanders said.
The legislation follows a damning report from the VA inspector general’s office released in late May that found 1,700 patients at a VA hospital in Phoenix were not placed on waiting lists for care. At that hospital, more than 200 veterans waited an average of 115 days for their first appointment, according to the inspector general’s office.
The report, which documented scheduling problems nationwide, led VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign a week ago.
The legislation also contains some provisions that aren’t in direct response to the recent VA scandal, including increased sexual assault services in the department and the granting of in-state college tuition for post-9/11 veterans.
Both Sanders and McCain called for greater accountability of VA operations in their initial plans unveiled Tuesday. But beyond that, few similarities existed. Thursday’s announcement effectively meshed the main points of McCain’s and Sanders’ proposals while leaving certain measures out. The language regarding firings within the VA comes from a bill sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida.
“Bernie Sanders is known as a fighter,” McCain said of the negotiations. “It’s been a pleasure to do combat with him.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., introduced a bill Wednesday that he said would close wasteful loopholes in VA construction accounting. Leahy commended Thursday’s bipartisan offering and said in a statement that quick change “can only happen if we work together.”
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., also commended the bipartisan efforts in a statement, adding, “Congress should act quickly on reforms to restore the confidence of veterans and their families in their health care system.”
The American Legion, a national veterans organization, worked closely with the senators to shape the bill, said Peter Gaytan, the group’s executive director.
“They put the veterans’ needs first,” Gaytan said. “We see it as a very solid start.”
McCain said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will bring the bill to the floor as soon as possible. The exact language of the bill will be finalized by Monday, McCain said.
The House passed its own VA bill, the Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act of 2014, at the end of May. McCain said he expected members of the House and Senate to negotiate on the two bills when the Senate version is passed.
Of the 21 bills Sanders has sponsored in this congressional session regarding veterans assistance, only one — the Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2013 — has become law.
In his floor speech Thursday, Sanders seemed relieved to have a VA bill with bipartisan support, and he emphasized that more issues remain at the VA.
“Does (the legislation) solve all the problems facing our veterans? Absolutely not,” Sanders said. “Should we come back and continue to deal with this issue? Absolutely.”
Jasper Craven is affiliated with the Boston University journalism program.MORE IN Central Vermont
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