WASHINGTON — U.S. House and Senate negotiators have approved a $17 billion compromise bill to overhaul the Department of Veterans Affairs and reform a program scandalized by veterans’ long waits for health care and VA workers falsifying records to cover up delays.
The vote by the 28-member conference committee late Monday sends the bill to the full House and Senate, where approval is expected later this week. The bill is intended to help veterans avoid long waits for health care, hire more doctors and nurses to treat them, and make it easier to fire executives at the VA.
The measure includes $10 billion in emergency spending to help veterans who can’t get prompt appointments with VA doctors to obtain outside care; $5 billion to hire doctors, nurses and other medical staff; and about $1.5 billion to lease 27 new 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 — a critical step — but does not provide money for them. That would require separate legislation.
The 27 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.
Action cames as the Senate is set to vote Tuesday to confirm former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald as the new VA secretary, replacing Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson.
Lawmakers hope to send the VA reform bill to the president later this week.
Florida U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who chairs the Senate panel, say the bill will require about $12 billion in new spending after accounting for about $5 billion in unspecified spending cuts from the VA’s budget.
Despite the steep cost, Miller said he is confident he can sell the bill to fellow Republicans, including tea party members.
“Taking care of our veterans is not an inexpensive proposition, and our members understand that,” Miller said Monday. “The VA has caused this problem and one of the ways that we can help solve it is to give veterans a choice, a choice to stay in the system or a choice to go out of the system” to get government-paid health care from a private doctor.
Pressed on the point by reporters, Miller said there will be “an educational process that will have to take place” before the House votes on the compromise plan later this week. “Obviously some of our members will need a little more educating than others.”
Rep. Tim Huelskamp., R-Kan., a tea party favorite and a member of the House veterans panel, said “throwing money at the VA won’t solve their problem,” adding that “a fundamental change in culture and real leadership from the president on down is the only way to provide the quality, timely care our veterans deserve.”
Sanders, for his part, said funding for veterans should be considered as a cost of war, paid for through 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,” he said.
Miller and Sanders both predicted passage of the bill by the end of the week, when Congress is set to leave town for a five-week recess.
If approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama, the veterans’ bill would be one of the few significant bills signed into law this year.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama welcomes the bipartisan deal as “much-needed reforms that need to be implemented.”
The White House is especially pleased that the bill includes emergency spending “to provide VA the additional resources necessary to deliver timely, high-quality care to veterans through a strengthened VA system,” Earnest said.
The VA has been rocked by reports of patients dying while awaiting treatment and mounting evidence that workers falsified or omitted appointment schedules to mask frequent, long delays. The resulting election-year firestorm forced VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign in late May.
The compromise measure would require the VA to pay private doctors to treat qualifying veterans who can’t get prompt appointments at the VA’s nearly 1,000 hospitals and outpatient clinics, or those who live at least 40 miles from one of them. Only veterans who are enrolled in VA care as of Aug. 1 or live at least 40 miles away would be eligible to get outside care.
The proposed restrictions are important in controlling costs for the program. Congressional budget analysts had projected that tens of thousands of veterans who currently are not treated by the VA would likely seek VA care if they could see a private doctor paid for by the government.
Gregory Roberts of The Advocate Washington bureau contributed to this report.