WHITE RIVER JUNCTION -- U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said Wednesday that a compromise deal to improve health care for military veterans was the most significant piece of legislation in years for those who served their country and he's proud it got through what he called a "dysfunctional Congress."
The $16.3 billion measure, which Sanders helped write, was designed to reduce long waits for health care, enable the Department of Veterans Affairs to hire more doctors and nurses and make it easier to fire officials who are not doing their jobs properly.
"I think there was an understanding on the part of many, many people in Congress that if we cannot take care of people who put their lives on the line to defend us and in many cases have suffered significantly -- if we can't do that -- then that is maybe the ultimate embarrassment," the independent from Vermont said at a news conference at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction. "And it would be hard to go home if you can't even accomplish that."
In recent months, the VA has been shaken by reports that veterans died while waiting for treatment and allegations that workers falsified records to cover up the delays, in some cases so the workers could collect bonuses.
To help eliminate wait times, the legislation calls for $10 million in emergency funding to allow veterans to seek outside care if they don't get an appointment with the VA within 30 days or a reasonable amount of time determined by the VA secretary, or if they live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA medical facility.
The compromise, which President Barack Obama is expected to sign Thursday, also provides $5 billion for the VA to hire more medical staff and $1.5 billion for 27 new major medical facilities in 18 states and Puerto Rico. Sanders would have preferred more funding to hire providers.
The legislation also expands a debt forgiveness program for medical graduates who work in the VA, opens more residency slots for doctors and nurses to train in the VA and provides funding for treatment of sexual abuse suffered while in the military.
Sanders said more remains to be done, however. He said he would like to see non-service-related dental care and coverage for in-vitro fertilization for veterans who suffered wounds preventing them from having children. He also wants help provided to caregivers of veterans disabled before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.