Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., asks a question during a May 7 hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)
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The Senate overwhelmingly passed emergency legislation on Veterans Affairs Department health visits and administrator accountability Wednesday, paving the way for the reforms to become law in a matter of days.
The chamber voted 93-3 in favor of the measure, crafted in recent days by Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. It was an unusually quick turnaround for the Senate, which began moving the reforms following the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki less than two weeks ago.
“These issues must be addressed now,” Sanders said on the Senate floor shortly before passage. “What our veterans deserve is to be able to get into the VA system in a timely manner and get quality care.”
The Senate deal would create a two-year program giving veterans who face long wait times for medical appointments at VA facilities or living in rural areas the ability to seek health care from private providers, with VA covering the costs.
An audit released by VA officials this week found more than 100,000 veterans nationwide have faced longer-than-promised wait times for medical appointments, with nearly one-fourth waiting more than three months for care.
Lawmakers had promised swift action to help solve that problem. On Wednesday, House members unanimously passed legislation providing similar private care access to veterans, which will be part of the legislative reconciliation process to come.
The Senate deal also includes plans for 26 new medical facility leases for VA, at an estimated cost of about $1.4 billion, and provides $500 million for hiring new VA doctors and nurses. Both moves are expected to improve access for veterans, and hopefully cut down on wait times.
The bill also would ensure that wait time statistics are no longer used in performance evaluations of VA officials, after investigators found that some of the record-keeping problems stemmed from administrators trying to protect their annual bonuses. Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson has already promised to make that change, with or without legislative action.
And the Senate plan would give broader authority to fire senior executives with questionable performance — echoing already-passed House legislation — along with mandating a new independent commission on scheduling to address the ongoing scandal.
Sanders also included several provisions unrelated to medical appointment wait times in the wide-ranging veterans bill, including extending in-state tuition rates to all veterans using GI Bill benefits, extending those education funds to spouses of fallen troops, and expanding care eligibility for military sexual trauma victims.
The total price tag of the moves remains unclear. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the health care portions of the bill alone could reach $35 billion over the next decade.
McCain has said that some of the expense of the new measures could be absorbed in unspent funds already in VA accounts. Before Thursday’s bill passage, senators voted to waive budget concerns in an effort to speed the legislation into a conference committee with House lawmakers.
Sanders said his goal is to move quickly, and have the final bill approved by both chambers and on President Obama’s desk sometime next week.
The White House on Thursday offered support for the Senate deal, saying in a statement: “We need to make sure that the problems identified at VA medical facilities get fixed.”