House and Senate negotiators unveiled a $17 billion package Monday to begin addressing long wait times and mismanagement at the Department of Veterans Affairs, a down payment on a broader reassessment of how the agency provides care to veterans.
The deal between Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) and Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.), who head the Senate and House panels overseeing the VA system, includes $10 billion to help veterans gain access to care from non-VA providers if they are unable to readily schedule appointments or don't live near VA facilities. Both the House and Senate are expected this week to vote on the measure, which would also give the VA secretary broad new authority to fire underperforming senior executives.
"People understand this issue should and must go beyond politics, that we have people who have put their lives on the line and come back with a whole lot of problems," said Mr. Sanders at a Monday news conference announcing the deal.
The agreement still needs the green light from a committee of House and Senate lawmakers, after which it will need to be approved by both chambers before being sent to the White House for the president's signature. About $12 billion of the total is considered emergency funding, which doesn't need to be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget—a decision that could still bring objections from more conservative Republicans. Mr. Miller said he was optimistic Congress would act this week to pass the bill.
"Taking care of veterans is not an inexpensive proposition and our members understand that," Mr. Miller said. "This is the way we have to make sure veterans are not standing in line."
Mr. Sanders said policy makers need to have a broader debate over the best way to provide care to veterans and what changes can be made to the VA system. Before that can happen, emergency actions are warranted, he said.
"Planes and tanks and guns are a cost of war. So is taking care of the men and women who use those weapons and fight our battles," Mr. Sanders said.
The compromise bill included a three-year extension to a VA pilot program to treat brain-injured veterans in private rehabilitation facilities. The assisted-living program had been set to expire in October, and, with Congress seemingly in a partisan stall, the VA had begun ousting dozens of brain-damaged veterans from facilities nationwide.
The brain-injury care program has been the subject of two articles in The Wall Street Journal, including a Feb. 20 front-page article about former Marine Cpl. Justin Bunce , who was injured by an explosion in Iraq in 2004 and lives with other brain-damaged veterans in a VA-funded home in Germantown, Md.
The two lawmakers have been negotiating for weeks over dueling House and Senate measures, wrangling over costs and how broad the changes should be in the final measure. Frustrations boiled over late last week as the two sides appeared well apart, with Mr. Sanders pressing for as much as $25 billion in funding while Mr. Miller said spending should be capped at $10 billion. Representatives for both lawmakers said over the weekend that all sides had to make compromises on the current iteration of the conference committee bill.
Even though the bill provides more funding for the VA, some veterans groups have expressed concern about the way the money is being spent.
"We remain concerned that simply giving veterans plastic cards and wishing them good luck in the private sector is not a substitute for a coordinated system of care," said the Disabled American Veterans, a veteran advocacy group. The group has said in the past that VA doctors know how best to treat veterans and the system needs more care providers rather than money to send vets to non-VA doctors.
Mr. Sanders said the deal includes funding for the VA to enter into leases on 27 new medical facilities, as well as money to hire more doctors and help with improving the agency's physical infrastructure. Other provisions are intended to improve accountability and help both veterans and active-duty troops receive better care.
Mr. Miller said lawmakers were also able to reconcile differing approaches to giving the VA secretary more authority to fire top-level employees for incompetence or mismanagement. Under the deal reached, a board would have 21 days to review any appeal filed by a senior executive who has been fired.
Last week, Sloan Gibson, acting VA secretary, said his department needed $17.6 billion over the next three years to make necessary fixes. "Some of the things he said are needed will get funded," said a staff member familiar with the deal.
A substantial portion of funding will be used to help veterans who are waiting more than 30 days for an appointment or who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility gain access to care from a non-VA physician.
It will also extend coverage for rural veterans by extending a program designed to help those far from major VA medical facilities get local care.
The VA will also be required to report to Congress on planned improvements to the VA's antiquated appointment-scheduling software, which hasn't been substantially improved since the 1980s.
Robert McDonald, President Barack Obama's nominee for VA secretary, cleared a hurdle last week when he was endorsed by the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs and now awaits confirmation by the full Senate, which is expected to come this week.