Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a May 15 Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
Congress appears poised to adopt new legislation making it easier for veterans to get private medical care and harder for underperforming administrators to keep their jobs, under a deal announced by Senate leaders Thursday.
Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and John McCain, R-Ariz., took to the chamber floor to announce the measure after days of negotiations. The pair had offered competing measures for VA reform earlier in the week, but announced the compromise legislation as a way to put aside partisan politics and immediately help veterans.
“I would have written a very different bill,” Sanders said. “But right now, we have a crisis on our hands, and it’s important we deal with that crisis.”
The deal, expected to be voted on in coming days, would create a “veterans choice card” for patients experiencing long wait times at VA facilities or living in rural areas, allowing them to see private providers instead.
It provides $500 million for hiring additional VA doctors and nurses. It also would authorize 26 new medical facility leases for the department, a provision that Senate Republicans had previously balked at due to the potential cost.
But McCain argued the moves were needed to help fix the department’s systemic wait time problems.
Last month, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was forced to resign after weeks of controversy over reports that regional level managers from more than three dozen VA facilities falsified records to cover up medical appointment delays and gain performance bonuses.
The Senate deal also would give future VA secretaries broader authority to fire senior executives with questionable performance, and mandate a new independent commission on scheduling to address the ongoing scandal.
House members passed similar legislation last month, but the Senate plan would include an appeals process to ensure the top-level firings aren’t politically motivated. Fired officials would be suspended without pay immediately, but would receive a final decision on their grievance within a month.
Sanders also included several provisions unrelated to health care issues in the deal, including extending in-state tuition rates to all veterans using GI Bill benefits and giving those education funds to spouses of fallen troops.
Paying for the initiative still could be problematic for supporters. Sanders and McCain said the legislation would be paid for through an emergency appropriation, a move that has not generated Republican support in the past.
But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle had been pushing for a fast response to the VA scandals, and several praised the deal as a workable compromise after its unveiling.
House leaders have offered support for several provisions of the Senate deal in the past, but did not have immediate reaction to the newest plan.