WASHINGTON – Senators on Thursday announced a bipartisan deal on legislation aimed at improving veterans’ health care in response to reports of Department of Veterans Affairs employees falsifying records to conceal long waits for medical appointments.
Sens. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent and chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and John McCain, R-Ariz., announced the agreement from the Senate floor as a group of senators headed to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
The agreement would allow veterans facing long waits at VA facilities to seek care from private doctors, expand the VA secretary’s authority to fire or demote staff for poor performance, establish 26 new VA health facilities in 18 states and provide $500 million for hiring of new VA doctors and nurses.
“Right now, we have a crisis on our hands,” Sanders said.
Added McCain: “We are talking about a system that must be fixed. It’s urgent that it be fixed.”
The proposed legislation also would extend college education benefits to the spouses of service members killed in the line of duty and guarantee in-state tuition for veterans at public colleges and universities. It also would establish a commission of experts to examine the VA health care system and recommend improvements.
The legislation could clear the Senate by the end of next week. But this being an election year, nothing is certain, even on veterans’ care, an issue that traditionally enjoys bipartisan support.
McCain asked colleagues to set aside their usual partisan bickering and act on the VA reform legislation swiftly.
“We have, for all intents and purposes, in some ways betrayed the brave men and women who are willing to go out and sacrifice for the well-being and freedom of the rest of us,” he said.
McCain is a decorated Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war whose support for the legislation should help it win votes. Indeed, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the top Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, threw his support behind it.
McCain said the legislation would give veterans a choice of seeking private care if they face a “wait time that is unacceptable” at VA facilities or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility.
The agreement could defuse partisan tensions that have arisen since the first reports of long waiting lists and the veterans who have died awaiting care. The House passed a narrow bill last month granting the veterans affairs secretary authority to fire or demote senior executives without going through a bulky federal review process. In holding officials accountable for the problems, the bill maintains the spirit of the House Republican measure, but it added due process protections for officials singled out for punishment.
The rare agreement in a hyper-partisan Congress, reached after negotiations between Sanders and McCain, came as the U.S. Office of Special Counsel announced that it is investigating allegations of reprisals against 37 VA whistleblowers, including some who have alleged improper scheduling of veterans for health care.
As Congress ratcheted up its response to the VA scandal, the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday provided funding for the Justice Department to play a bigger role in the investigation of VA employees falsifying records to cover up long waits for medical care.
And the House Veterans Affairs Committee called a Monday night hearing that could shed new light on the scope of the VA mess. The panel asked for an update from the VA inspector general, who has been investigating 42 sites and issued an interim report last week that found a systemic problem nationwide in scheduling veterans for health care in a timely manner.
Meanwhile, an additional 18 veterans in the Phoenix area whose names were kept off an official electronic Veterans Affairs appointment list have died, the agency’s acting secretary said Thursday – the latest revelation in the growing scandal.
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said he does not know whether the 18 new deaths were related to long waiting times for appointments but said they were in addition to the 17 reported last month by the VA’s inspector general.
In the meantime, members of Congress stepped up efforts to find out about problems at VA facilities in their own states. Republican senators on Thursday sent a letter to Gibson seeking answers about reports of unauthorized wait lists at VA facilities in the Midwest.
In another development, Obama’s choice to be the top health official at the VA withdrew his nomination Thursday, saying he feared his confirmation could spark a prolonged political battle.
Jeffrey Murawsky, health care chief for the VA’s Chicago-based regional office, was nominated last month to be the department’s new undersecretary for health care, replacing Robert Petzel, who resigned under pressure. Murawsky now oversees seven VA hospitals and 30 clinics in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan, including one in suburban Chicago where there are allegations that its staff used secret lists to conceal long patient waiting times for appointments.
The Associated Press and the New York Times contributed to this report.