Congressional negotiators have reached a tentative agreement on legislation to bolster healthcare funding and reforms at the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs, salvaging a deal after talks imploded last week.
The accord comes none too soon: Lawmakers are poised to leave town at the end of the week for the long August break. A stalemate could politically damage the already unpopular Congress.
The top negotiators, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), scheduled a news conference for Monday after working through the weekend. Final details of the package were still being completed, aides said.
Miller and Sanders "made significant progress toward an agreement on legislation to make VA more accountable and to help the department recruit more doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals," they said in a statement.
The deal would address both the long- and short-term needs of the VA, aides said.
Reforming the department was a top priority this spring after whistle-blowers disclosed long wait times at VA healthcare facilities and cover-ups by VA workers. Some of those long waits led to patient deaths, whistle-blowers said. Amid the allegations, VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki was forced to resign.
But as deliberations began over how to fix the system, House Republicans and Senate Democrats split along largely partisan lines.
Both parties agreed that veterans should be able to seek private-sector care when waits are too long at VA facilities. But the costs ran higher than expected - $44 billion under the House proposal and $35 billion under the Senate plan, according to estimates from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
A new round of talks brought costs down, but the parties were still far apart: Republicans wanted to spend about $10 billion, far less than the $25 billion that Senate Democrats proposed.
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson has said nearly $18 billion is needed to hire more doctors and clinical staff. The VA's workload has skyrocketed with the return of troops from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the widening of Vietnam War-era Agent Orange claims.