WASHINGTON — Senior senators Thursday announced a bipartisan deal on legislation aimed at improving veterans’ health care 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 in the Senate as a group of senators headed to Normandy 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 and provide $500 million to hire new VA doctors and nurses.
“Right now, we have a crisis on our hands,” Sanders said.
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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 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 health-care 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 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 Vietnam War POW whose support for the legislation should help it win votes.
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 hyperpartisan 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 whistle-blowers, including some who have alleged improper scheduling of veterans for health care.
In the meantime, members of Congress stepped up efforts to find out about problems at VA facilities in their states. Republican senators 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, who Thursday visited the Phoenix VA facility that has become the epicenter of the growing scandal, said an additional 18 veterans died while waiting for medical appointments.
He said he did not know whether the 18 new deaths were related to long waiting times for appointments, but he said they were in addition to the 17 reported last month by the VA’s inspector general.
The 18 veterans who died were among 1,700 veterans identified in a report last week by the VA’s inspector general as being “at risk of being lost or forgotten.” The investigation also found broad and deep-seated problems with delays in patient care and manipulation of waiting lists throughout the sprawling VA health-care system, which provides medical care to about 9 million veterans and family members.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.