Two U.S. senators on Thursday announced a bipartisan deal on legislation aimed at improving healthcare for veterans in response to reports of Veterans Affairs employees falsifying records to conceal long waits for medical appointments.
Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and John McCain (R-Ariz.) announced the agreement from the Senate floor as a group of senators headed to Normandy, France, for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
The agreement would allow veterans facing long waits at VA facilities to seek care from private doctors, expand the VA secretary's authority to fire or demote staff for poor performance, establish 26 new VA health facilities in 18 states, including California, and provide $500 million for the hiring of new VA doctors and nurses.
"Right now, we have a crisis on our hands," Sanders said.
Added McCain: "We are talking about a system that must be fixed. It's urgent that it be fixed."
The proposed legislation also would extend college education benefits to the spouses of service members killed in the line of duty and guarantee in-state tuition for veterans at public colleges and universities. It also would establish a commission of experts to examine the VA healthcare system and recommend improvements.
The legislation could clear the Senate by the end of next week. But this being an election year, nothing is certain, even on veterans' care, an issue that traditionally enjoys bipartisan support.
McCain asked colleagues to set aside their usual partisan bickering and act on the VA reform legislation swiftly.
"We have, for all intents and purposes, in some ways betrayed the brave men and women who are willing to go out and sacrifice for the well-being and freedom of the rest of us," he said.
McCain is a decorated Vietnam veteran and former POW whose support for the legislation should help it win votes. Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the top Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, also threw his support behind the legislation.
McCain said the legislation would give veterans a choice of seeking private care if they face a "wait time that is unacceptable" at VA facilities or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility.
The rare agreement in a hyper-partisan Congress, reached after negotiations between Sanders and McCain, came as the U.S. Office of Special Counsel announced that it is investigating allegations of reprisals against 37 VA whistleblowers, including some who have alleged improper scheduling of veterans for healthcare.
As Congress ratcheted up its response to the VA scandal, the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday provided funding for the Justice Department to play a bigger role in the investigation of VA employees falsifying records to cover up long waits for medical care.
And the House Veterans Affairs Committee called a Monday night hearing that could shed new light on the scope of the VA mess. The panel asked for an update from the VA inspector general, who has been investigating 42 sites and issued an interim report last week that found a systemic problem nationwide in scheduling veterans for healthcare in a timely manner.
Whistleblowers who have complained about reprisals work at VA facilities involving 19 states, but the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative agency, declined to name the facilities.
"Receiving candid information about harmful practices from employees will be critical to the VA's efforts to identify problems and find solutions," Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said. "However, employees will not come forward if they fear retaliation."
In the meantime, members of Congress stepped up efforts to find out about problems at VA facilities in their own states. Republican senators on Thursday sent a letter to acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson seeking answers about reports of unauthorized wait lists at VA facilities in the Midwest.
Gibson was visiting the Phoenix VA on Thursday, and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors, whom President Obama tasked to conduct a broad review of veterans healthcare, was to visit VA facilities in Ohio on Thursday.