WASHINGTON -- After a near-death experience, legislation to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs has been revived.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) announced on Monday that they had struck a deal to reform the beleaguered agency. Sanders and Miller, who chair their respective chambers' committees on veterans' affairs, had not been talking to each other as late as the middle of last week. They held dueling press events on Thursday, each blaming the other for abandoning negotiations.
But just as it looked like talks had completely dissolved, they started back up again. Marathon sessions between staffers over the weekend resulted in a deal that both sides say would address short-term needs for veteran care while also working to place the agency on a more stable long-term path.
At a press conference on Monday, Sanders and Miller said the final deal would cost about $17 billion, with $10 billion of that devoted to covering the costs of veterans seeking health care outside of the VA network and $5 billion given to shoring up the VA’s own system. In addition, $1.5 billion will go toward leasing 27 major facilities in 18 states and Puerto Rico. Miller said that $12 billion would be treated as "mandatory emergency money," while the remaining $5 billion would come from money already existing within the VA.
"The veterans need a quick response and this is the way to make sure the veterans are not standing in line, as they have been," said Miller.
The cost of the bill remains a concern, both authors admitted at Monday's briefing. It's possible that the $10 billion set aside for private care might be insufficient should more veterans opt out of the system than anticipated. Should that be the case, Sanders said, they would have to revisit the matter and, potentially, appropriate more money.
“It may well be that some point in the future we will need more money, and that’s a debate we are going to have to have when we cross that bridge,” said Sanders.
The bill as outlined on Monday would grant the VA secretary "complete authority to immediately fire corrupt or incompetent senior executives, while providing employees with streamlined appeal rights," according to a GOP aide. Sanders added that officials would have a 21-day window in which to appeal that firing -- a provision that he insisted be included during negotiations. The bill would also include language expanding the availability of in-state tuition under the post GI bill as well as language that gives spouses of veterans killed in action scholarship opportunities under that same bill.
Veterans groups welcomed the news, while cautioning that one bill may not completely solve the agency's systemic problems.
"IAVA members nationwide would welcome the news of a long overdue deal. It's been a summer of disappointment and betrayal for our veterans,” said Paul Rieckhoff, the founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “69% of IAVA vets recently surveyed said they felt Congress is doing a poor job of improving their lives.”
The final agreement is something rare for Congress: a deal that gives both Democrats and Republicans a limited victory.
The initial Senate bill, which passed by a 93-3 vote, gave veterans who experienced inordinately long wait times or who were located more than 40 miles from a VA facility the option of getting treated at private medical centers. It also cut bureaucratic red tape, giving the VA secretary more power to fire or demote senior executives. Additionally, it granted the agency the ability to shift $500 million toward hiring more doctors and improving its infrastructure.
The House bill, which passed by a 421-0 vote, mirrored the Senate bill in most ways, but it did not include money for new facilities and the hiring of nurses or doctors.
Those two bills would have normally served as the guidelines for negotiators to find a middle ground. But two external factors disrupted the conference committee tasked with reaching an agreement. The first was the Congressional Budget Office's determination that each bill would cost more than $50 billion. Lawmakers dismissed those estimates as exaggerated, but it quickly became imperative to figure out ways to lower the price tag.
The second was Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson's determination last week that the agency would need an influx of $17 billion in order to meet its institutional objectives. Miller recoiled at the late-stage funding request, while Sanders suggested that the two sides find a lower number. The $5 billion figure they ultimately landed on is significantly lower, but considering that the Senate bill only contained $500 million to begin with, it’s an achievement for Sanders, albeit one he was forced to offset with cuts elsewhere.
Now that Miller and Sanders have come to an agreement, the VA reform legislation will go back to the House and Senate for consideration. Both chambers are expected to pass the measure before leaving for August recess, though some conservatives have expressed concern over its cost.
“I have been in touch with Senator Reid every day to see how fast we can possibly get it through the Senate,” Sanders told MSNBC on Monday afternoon. “As you know, we sometimes have some cantankerous members. But I hope very much that we will get it done within the next few days."
The bill would then move to the president's desk for his signature. The administration, according to Hill sources and veterans advocates, has not been terribly involved in negotiations. Aides stayed apprised of the talks and have been supportive.
"We look forward to reviewing the details of the bill," Jessica Santillo, a spokeswoman for the White House, told The Huffington Post. "Ensuring VA has the resources it needs to improve veterans’ access to care is a top priority."
“I believe it will [pass the House],” said Miller. “I come from a sales background before I came to Congress, and I think I can do an adequate job. ... We will be able to sell it to our conference. We will probably not get a unanimous vote as we did as the bill was coming out of the House.”
CORRECTION: This article was updated after publication to reflect that the total cost of the bill is $17 billion, not $15 billion.
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