With days left before the August break, congressional leaders unveiled a $17-billion bipartisan compromise Monday to fix the tattered Department of Veterans Affairs.
The deal includes $10 billion in emergency funds to allow veterans to go to outside doctors if they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or are told they must wait more than 14 days for an appointment.
An additional $5 billion will be allocated to hire doctors, nurses and other medical staff to address the space problems at overcrowded VA facilities. About $1.5 billion will be used to lease 27 new clinics across the country. A smaller, undetermined amount will be used to extend programs already within the healthcare system.
The bill — expected to be formally approved by the House and Senate this week — also grants the VA secretary broad authority to fire or demote senior executives who are accused of mismanagement and dishonesty.
The agreement was struck over the weekend after negotiations nearly broke down Friday.
In June, both chambers approved separate versions of a VA reform bill, but disputes arose over the costs. In the previous versions, the House would have spent $44 billion while the Senate authorized $35 billion.
The new plan includes nearly $5 billion in offset spending cuts, all of which will come from within the VA system. Numbers provided Monday were approximate because the Congressional Budget Office hasn't delivered its cost estimate yet, according to a House aide.
"This VA conference committee legislation is far from what I would have written alone, but it is a compromise that I strongly support," said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chief arbiter for the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. "Rather than go through why we didn't do this a month ago and get it done, the important point is that we are here together having done something."
Sanders called the deal a rare compromise between Democrats and Republicans in a "dysfunctional" Congress.
"We have a VA that is in crisis today," said Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), the House's top negotiator. "This agreement will go a long way to helping resolve the crisis. Helping get veterans off waiting lists is extremely important, and this bill does that."
The proposal would establish an independent committee to review VA operations and act as a liaison with Congress.
The initial support for a VA overhaul followed reports this spring that veterans were waiting months or years for care, and that VA employees were covering up the delays and manipulating wait-time data at facilities throughout the country.
Veterans groups applauded the deal, but said more reforms were needed.
"This is still a step, and there are going to be more steps in this Congress and the next," said Ian de Planque, deputy legislative director for the American Legion. "We also want to make sure that we're not just throwing money in there and not paying attention to where it's going to."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times