The U.S. Senate on Thursday night overwhelmingly approved a $16.3 billion measure to overhaul the much-troubled Veterans Affairs department. The House of Representative passed the same legislation on Wednesday, and the measure now awaits President Obama’s signature.
The bill’s authors, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., announced the joint conference committee legislation on Monday after weeks of negotiations. They scrambled to get both the House and Senate on board before Congress heads into a five-week break on Friday.
The measure -- which passed 91-2 in the Senate and 420-5 in the House -- seeks to remedy the funding and staffing shortages that have led to massively inadequate health care services in some places as a surge of U.S. veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan come home. A recent audit by the VA found that about 46,000 veterans have had to wait at least three months for initial appointments, while another 7,000 veterans who sought to schedule appointments in the last decade never could. In the most notable VA scandal, at least 40 veterans in Phoenix died waiting for appointments at the local VA health care system, CNN learned in April.
“This bill keeps our commitment to the men and women who put their lives on the line to defend our country,” Sanders said in a statement on Thursday. “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.”
Sanders said the bill also addresses the “very serious problem of accountability and makes certain that dishonest and incompetent senior officials do not remain employed at the VA.” In the case of Phoenix, a secret waiting list was crafted to hide the fact that up to 1,600 sick veterans were forced to wait months to see a doctor. Internal emails obtained by CNN revealed that top management in Arizona knew about the cover up and even defended it.
If signed by Obama, the Veterans Affair measure would provide:
· $10 billion in emergency provisions to help veterans who cannot get an appointment at a VA clinic within 30 days, or who live more than 40 miles away from one, to see private doctors or visit community health centers or other government-run health facilities.
· $5 billion for the VA to recruit more doctors, nurses and other medical providers.
· $1.3 billion to lease 27 new clinics in 18 states and Puerto Rico.
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson had asked for slightly more money -- $17.6 billion – to reform the department over the next three years, the Los Angeles Times noted. The House and Senate had approved separate versions of a VA reform bill in early June, but the chambers failed to reach an agreement over the costs. The House sought $44 billion, while the Senate authorized $35 billion.
The compromise is good news for former Proctor & Gamble CEO and vet Robert McDonald, who President Obama nominated in June to overhaul the VA after former Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation. McDonald was unanimously approved by the Senate on Tuesday.