A bipartisan pair of senators announced a deal to reform the embattled Veterans Affairs health care system on Thursday, marking the most significant sign of congressional action on a scandal that has roiled Washington in recent weeks.
The proposal, developed by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and John McCain, R-Ariz. would give the secretary of veterans affairs greater freedom to fire employees of the department who are accused of misconduct. "When you have incompetent people in the VA or worse, dishonest people in the VA, they should be removed from their jobs immediately," Sanders, the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said.
The bill would also institute a two-year pilot program that would permit veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility to receive care from private or non-profit hospitals that are not part of the VA system. That proposal was pushed strongly by McCain and other Republicans who said an immediate fix was necessary to provide care for patients who have already been waiting.
To strengthen the VA's capacity to handle an influx of patients in the future, Sanders said, the bill would also include $500 million to hire new doctors and nurses at VA facilities, and it would "allow the construction of 26 major medical facility leases" in 18 states around the country.
The proposal, which was announced by Sanders and McCain on the Senate floor Thursday, must still be voted on by the full Senate. It will then proceed to the House, which has been developing its own VA reform ideas.
McCain expressed his hope that his colleagues could "put some of our differences aside" and "move forward and address this legislation a quickly as possible." He thanked Sanders, a "fighter," for negotiating the agreement, saying it was a "pleasure to do combat with him."
Sanders seconded McCain's desire for a speedy legislative process. "Right now we have a crisis on our hands and it's imperative that we deal with that crisis," he said.
The scandal has focused on the lengthy delays in treatment veterans faced at several VA facilities around the country. At the VA hospital in Phoenix, Ariz., the delays were linked to the deaths of as many as 40 veterans who were awaiting care.
The outcry intensified when it was reported that VA employees in Phoenix had falsified waiting lists to understate the amount of time some veterans had been waiting for care. An interim report from the VA's inspector general confirmed the use of scheduling practices that were "not in compliance" with the department's policy.
That report also found that 1,700 veterans were waiting for a primary care appointment but were not found on any waiting list, leaving them at risk of being forgotten or lost in the scheduling process.
As he was announcing the outlines of the deal on Thursday, Sanders said he and his colleagues were "appalled" by the report on the Phoenix facility. "Every veteran in this country is entitled to high quality medical care, and...they should get that care in a timely manner," he said.
The outrage over the report eventually forced VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to step down from his post last week after more than five years on the job. President Obama named Shinseki's deputy, Sloan Gibson, as the acting head of the department until a permanent successor could be confirmed.
During a visit to the VA facility in Phoenix on Thursday, Gibson noted the severity of the challenges faced by the department, but he promised a tireless effort to address them.
"As a veteran, I assure you I have the passion and determination to fix these problems, one veteran at a time," he said. "VA has reached out to all veterans identified in the Office of Inspector General's interim report to discuss individual medical needs and immediately begin scheduling appointments. Getting this right is our top priority, and taking care of the Veterans here in Phoenix is a good place to start."
Gibson said the facility was beginning the process of hiring additional staff to deal with the backlog of cases and "working to award a contract which will extend the ability to use non-VA providers in the community for primary care."
He also condemned the "breach of integrity" evident in the inspector general's report, saying the misconduct revealed "can and must be fixed."