With a fresh compromise in hand to address long wait times and other deficiencies at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) , the chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans' Affairs committees are now working quickly to send the bill to President Obama before Congress leaves town Friday for its five-week summer break.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., overcame the final obstacles Sunday to merge the two VA bills that passed the House and Senate earlier this summer. The compromise allows veterans who have been waiting more than 30 days for treatment or who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility to seek treatment from a private physician.
The agreement allocates $10 billion in emergency funds to cover the cost of veterans who seek treatment outside the system that will not be offset by other cuts or savings. Another $5 billion will go toward hiring new doctors and nurses, and the VA will enter into leases at 27 major facilities around the country.
Consistent with House Republicans' bill, the compromise also contains language which will allow the VA secretary to fire people immediately who are underperforming or lying, and then gives them a 21 day period of appeal without pay.
"I strongly support what we have come up with," said Sanders, who just days earlier had accused his Republican counterparts of failing to negotiate in good faith. "This bill makes certain that we address the immediate crisis of veterans begin forced onto long waiting lines for health care. It strengthens the VA so that it will be able to hire the doctors, nurses and other medical personnel it needs so that we can put a permanent end to long waiting lists. It addresses the very serious problems of accountability and it makes certain that dishonest and incompetent senior officials at the VA do not remain employed there."
Sanders, who had originally sought up to $25 billion in VA funding, noted it was not the bill he would have crafted on his own but that he and Miller were working in an extremely difficult environment with "a lot of partisanship."
Miller, for his part, said the bill "starts a conversation" about the future of the VA.
"Senator Sanders and I differ about certain things but one thing that we do agree about is that veterans of this country deserve the best healthcare they can get in a timely fashion and that has not been the case as of late."
The conference committee is expected to finish its work before the end of the day in order to allow the House and Senate to get to work passing thecompromise in their respective chambers and sending it to the president. Miller said he believed the House would vote first, but there has been no final decision.
Despite the inclusion of $10 billion in emergency spending, Miller said he was confident that enough of his Republican colleagues would support the dealto avoid a last-minute upset from conservatives worried about the bill's new spending.
"As we discussed in our conference throughout this process taking care of our veterans is not an inexpensive proposition and our members understand that," he said.
But he also reminded reporters, "I come from a sales background before I came to Congress and I think I can do an adequate job."
He predicted the votes would not be unanimous, as they were when the House passed its own VA bill, but that there would be enough of an "educational process" to get several of his colleagues on board.