WASHINGTON – The health system at the Department of Veterans Affairs would receive a $17 billion boost, and more veterans would be able to see doctors outside the VA system, under a compromise bill announced Monday that won praise from veterans in Western New York who said it would help reform the scandal-plagued bureaucracy.
The bill, which is likely to go to the floor of the House and Senate for passage later this week, sets aside $10 billion to pay for outside care for veterans who would endure long wait times if they sought treatment at a VA facility. That money also funds a new program allowing veterans who live 40 or more miles from a VA facility to get their care from other health care providers.
In addition, the bill includes $5 million for additional doctors and nurses at VA facilities and $2 billion for new health facilities and other purposes. The measure also makes it easier for the agency to fire executives who aren’t doing their job.
“It makes good sense,” Roger L. Woodworth, an Iraq War veteran who now serves as president and CEO of the Veterans One-Stop Center of Western New York, said of the bill. “It’s aligned with the VA’s mission, and it addresses some of the findings that the audits revealed.”
The deal comes after weeks of congressional wrangling in response to investigations that found that VA managers at hospitals in Phoenix and elsewhere were falsifying records to make it seem like patients did not face long waits for care. Another government probe found that other VA hospitals were acknowledging medical errors while simultaneously denying that those mistakes had any health consequences. For example, officials at the Buffalo VA Medical Center denied that poor sterilization procedures would cause any further problems.
In announcing the compromise legislation Monday, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Jeff Miller – the chairmen of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs committees – said their bill aimed to fix a cash shortfall at the VA while addressing a deep-seated cultural problem at the agency.
“This bill makes certain that we address the immediate crisis of veterans being forced onto long waiting lists for health care,” “and it strengthens the VA so that it will be able to hire the doctors, nurses and medical personnel it needs so we can permanently put an end to the long waiting lists,” Sanders, an independent from Vermont, said at a Capitol Hill news conference.
Miller, R-Fla., agreed, saying: “We have a VA that is in crisis today. This agreement will go a long way to helping resolve the crisis.”
The first level of that crisis is a cash shortage that stems from a wave of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans along with the aging of veterans from earlier wars.
While providing $17 billion in new funding overall, the measure falls far short of earlier versions of the bill that would have spent $35 billion, prompting some lawmakers to worry that the bill just doesn’t provide enough funding.
“When you look at the numbers, on the face of it, it looks substantial,” Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said of the $17 billion in new spending. “But you’re talking about a national program that services some 28 million veterans. And the needs for both physical care and mental care for returning veterans are very, very significant.”
Sen. John McCain stressed, though, that Congress could always revisit the veterans issue if need be.
“This bill is a beginning – not an end – to the efforts that must be taken to address this crisis,” said McCain, an Arizona Republican and a leading congressional voice for veterans.
The $17 billion price tag may be too much for some House Republicans to swallow, especially because $12 billion of it would be deemed “emergency spending” that would not have to be paid for by cuts in other parts of the federal budget. The other $5 billion would come from reallocations of existing VA funds.
Sanders defended funding most of the bill through adding to the deficit, saying: “Funding for veterans’ needs must be considered a ‘cost of war’ and appropriated as emergency spending. Planes and tanks and guns are a cost of war. So is taking care of the men and women who fight our battles.”
Miller acknowledged he will have to sell the deal to tea party acolytes in the House who put a priority on cutting spending.
“I come from a sales background, and I do have a sales job to do here,” Miller said. “We will be able to sell it to our conference.”
Veterans advocates seemed sold on the legislation. “My thought is, first of all, it’s good that Congress is moving forward and likely to pass this before it goes on vacation,” said Western New York veterans advocate Patrick W. Welsh. A five-week congressional recess begins Friday.
Welsh conceded, however, that the bill could also be viewed as “a typical Washington solution that throws money at the problem in order to correct it.”
While saying it’s good that veterans who are stuck on waiting lists would be able to seek health care elsewhere under the bill, Welsh cautioned that there is a downside to that provision: A doctor outside the VA is not likely to know a veteran’s history.
Welsh also said it’s especially important that the bill makes it easier to fire top-level VA executives, giving them only 21 days to appeal a dismissal.
“Too many people in the Senior Executive Service just go along each day while they continue to do a mediocre job, or worse,” he said.
Initial reaction to the measure from New York lawmakers was largely positive, as well.
“It is a major step toward fixing the ills that plague the VA system,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.
Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., agreed, saying: “Congress would fail its sacred duty to stand by our veterans if we do not pass this legislation before leaving Washington this week.”
Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, also added his support, saying: “These are much-needed reforms that veterans and their families are counting on us to deliver.”
And Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, said: “I am pleased Congress could come together to find a solution to ensure our veterans receive the care they need, when they need it. Congress must continue to hold the administration accountable for fixing the systemic problems that plague the VA’s bloated bureaucracy at the expense of service to our nation’s heroes.”