Senate fashions bipartisan VA reform deal to address 'crisis'

Sens. Bernie Sanders and John McCain have fashioned compromise legislation to cut wait times for veterans seeking medical care while also holding officials accountable for systemic problems at the VA.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill. Senator McCain and Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont announced legislation that seeks to cut wait times for veterans seeking medical care.

Congress is moving swiftly and in atypically bipartisan fashion to fix the massive, troubled government system for helping US military veterans.

In the Senate Thursday, Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, an Independent who caucuses with Democrats, and Republican John McCain announced compromise legislation that aims to cut wait times for veterans seeking medical care while also holding accountable Department of Veterans Affairs officials responsible for systemic problems at the VA.

Under the proposal, veterans who live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA medical facility or who have had to wait more than 30 days for treatment would be able to seek care at non-VA hospitals and other medical centers.

The proposal also authorizes the VA to lease 26 new health facilities in 18 states, and it directs $500 million in funding already authorized to be spent hiring additional doctors and nurses. Also, it would let the VA immediately fire as many as 450 senior regional executives and hospital administrators for poor performance.

"Right now we have a crisis on our hands, and it’s imperative that we deal with that crisis," Senator Sanders said in announcing the deal.

The Senate action Thursday follows the departure of VA Chief Eric Shineski, who resigned last week under growing pressure from Democrats as well as Republicans. The White House, meanwhile, has been under even greater pressure to clean up a massive government agency needing to address a clientele that includes thousands of vets returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seeking help with physical and mental problems tied to combat, as well as an aging population of Vietnam War veterans.

The VA’s inspector general reported last week that some 1,700 veterans in need of care were "at risk of being lost or forgotten" after being kept off the official waiting list at a veterans hospital in Phoenix. Beyond that one hospital, the IG’s office found "inappropriate scheduling practices are systemic throughout" the VA's 1,700 health facilities nationwide, including 150 hospitals and 820 clinics.

Meanwhile, President Obama's choice to be the top health official at the VA withdrew his nomination Thursday, saying he feared his confirmation could spark a prolonged political battle, the Associated Press reports.

Jeffrey Murawsky, health-care chief for the VA's Chicago-based regional office, was nominated last month to be the department's new undersecretary for health care, replacing Robert Petzel, who resigned under pressure. Mr. Petzel had been scheduled to retire later this year but was asked to leave early amid the firestorm over delays in patient care and preventable deaths at veterans hospitals.

Mr. Murawsky now oversees seven VA hospitals and 30 clinics in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan, including one in suburban Chicago where there are allegations that its staff used secret lists to conceal long patient wait times for appointments. Murawsky was a doctor at the Hines, Ill., hospital and remains on its staff.

The White House said in a statement that Murawsky feared a prolonged fight over his confirmation, adding that he believed the role is too important not to be filled quickly.

Although Senators Sanders and McCain – one a self-described socialist, the other a bona fide conservative – were able to reach compromise on a bill addressing the VA’s problems, all is not sweetness and light on Capitol Hill regarding help for veterans.

Amendments likely will be proposed in the full Senate, then whatever results there will be taken up by the Republican-controlled House, where the GOP leadership continues to hammer Mr. Obama on the VA’s failings.

“The V.A. scandal is a national disgrace, and Americans are eager to know the extent of your willingness to personally take action in order to make things right for those who have served,” House Speaker John Boehner, majority leader Eric Cantor, majority whip Kevin McCarthy, and Republican conference chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers wrote in a letter to Obama this week.

As for the bill emerging in the Senate Thursday, McCain acknowledges that “this is not a perfect document.” But he urged his colleagues to press forward with the effort.

"Can we sort of pledge that we are committed to seeing this all the way through?" he said. "Let's not get hung up on certain other aspects of our differences that most people would view as gridlock in this body."

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