Washington — Senior U.S. senators agreed Thursday on a bipartisan Veterans Affairs bill that includes a green light for two delayed health clinics in southwest Louisiana.
The Senate bill, which covers an array of VA issues, is a response to a building national uproar over veterans’ health care following allegations that surfaced in April that as many as 40 veterans may have died while waiting an average of 115 days for appointments at the Phoenix VA hospital or its clinics.
Since then, investigators have found long wait times and falsified records covering them up at other VA facilities nationwide.
The compromise authorizes the VA to lease space for 26 delayed medical clinics in 18 states, including ones in Lafayette and Lake Charles. Plans for the clinics were cast in doubt when congressional budget officials adopted a new, higher-cost formula for estimating lease expenses. A 2013 House-approved bill to authorize the leases fell victim to procedural wrangling in the Senate early this year.
Authorization of the leases puts them on the VA’s to-do list but does not provide money for them. That would require separate legislation.
The 26 clinics have been designated by the VA in its budget requests as necessary to satisfy unmet needs for veterans’ medical care. The VA network — the largest single health care provider in the nation — treats 9 million patients at 150 hospitals and 820 clinics.
The VA operates a small clinic in Lafayette now and has set up a mobile clinic in Lake Charles, but neither is considered sufficient by the agency.
“It’s great to see that we’re breaking through the gridlock to get these clinics built for our veterans,” U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said in a prepared statement.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., also released a statement on the clinics.
“Our veterans deserve their representatives to continue the teamwork that has gotten the clinics this far, and they deserve our support of this legislation next week,” Landrieu said.
U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, whose congressional district also includes Lake Charles, praised Vitter and Landrieu for their work to authorize the clinics. In a prepared statement, he called on U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, to “put election-year politics aside and work in the best interests of America’s veterans.”
And U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, who is running to unseat Landrieu this fall, said in his statement, “We need to continue working towards patient-centered solutions so all veterans have access to quality health care.”
The bill also would allow veterans to get government-subsidized care from private doctors enrolled as providers for Medicare, military TRICARE or other government health care programs, if those veterans experience waits of 30 days or more for VA appointments or live at least 40 miles from a VA hospital or clinic.
It also would let the VA immediately fire as many as 450 senior regional executives and hospital administrators for poor performance. The bill resembles a measure passed last month by the House but includes a 28-day appeal process omitted by the House legislation.
The Senate deal came as acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson announced that 18 veterans who were kept off official VA waiting lists in the Phoenix area have died. Gibson said he does not know whether the deaths were related to long waits to see a VA doctor.
The 18 veterans who died were among 1,700 identified in a federal report as being kept off an electronic waiting list of scheduled appointments, Gibson said. Taking care of those 1,700 veterans is his top priority as VA chief, Gibson said during a tour of VA facilities in Phoenix, where the furor started.
“Right now we have a crisis on our hands, and it’s imperative that we deal with that crisis,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
Sanders and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., announced the agreement Thursday following two days of intense negotiations. Both had introduced competing versions earlier in the week.
McCain said the bill was “a way to help to relieve this terrible tragedy that has befallen our nation’s veterans.”
Senate leaders said they hoped to bring the legislation to the floor soon but offered no specifics.
The bill also authorizes the VA to spend $500 million to hire more doctors and nurses.
Gibson took over the VA temporarily last Friday after former Secretary Eric Shinseki, an ex-Army general, resigned under pressure.
Gibson promised a number of changes to improve patient care, including greater use of non-VA doctors, especially in rural areas.
He also said the agency has done away with a controversial 14-day waiting period for first appointments. Critics said the goal was unrealistic and created an incentive for schedulers and other VA employees to falsify records to earn bonuses and other rewards for meeting performance goals.
Associated Press writers Terry Tang in Phoenix and Donna Cassata in Washington contributed to this report.