WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Congress overcame its usual partisan divides long enough to pass a $16.3 billion bill brokered by Sen. Bernie Sanders to reform the Veterans Affairs system.
Sanders, chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, hashed out a compromise with Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., hurrying the legislation through both chambers Thursday before Congress left for its August recess. Despite debate and bickering and "knock-down, drag-out arguing," the bill passed easily the House on Wednesday, 420-5, and on Thursday evening, was approved 91-3 in the Senate. The bill will be signed by President Barack Obama in the coming days.
Under the three-year bill, veterans can access care at private hospitals and clinics if they live more than 40 miles from a VA hospital, or if they are not seen within 30 days. The legislation allocates $10 billion to pay for private care, and $5 billion for the VA to hire additional doctors and staff. An additional $1.3 billion provides funds for the VA to lease space at other 27 facilities around the country. The VA cares for 9 million veterans nationwide.
"This bill keeps our commitment to the men and women who put their lives on the line to defend our country," Sanders, I-Vt., said in a news release. "It makes certain that we address the immediate crisis of veterans being forced onto long waiting lists for health care. 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.
Jeff Frank, spokesman for the senator, said Sanders "didn't get everything he wanted" from the legislation, "but he was happy to support the compromise."
The bill comes in response to the deaths of several veterans that resulted from a backlog in service in a Phoenix facility in April. Subsequent investigations showed that VA hospitals across the country had accumulated extensive backlogs and many had inaccurately reported the wait times experienced by veterans. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki resigned in May over the scandal.
The new legislation also gives the VA secretary authority to fire incompetent employees or senior management officials accused of mismanagement.
The Senate vote comes two days after the Senate confirmed Robert McDonald, former CEO of Proctor & Gamble, to replace Shinseki as VA secretary.
"Planes and tanks and guns are a cost of war," Sanders said. "So is taking care of the men and women who use those weapons and fight our battles."