WASHINGTON, July 28 (UPI) -- With just three days left before Congress leaves town for August recess, the lead negotiators crafting a fix for the troubled Veterans Affairs health system managed to hammer out a deal over the weekend.
Senate VA Committee chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and House VA Committee chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., stayed in Washington over the weekend to bring competing House and Senate bills into alignment, announcing Monday a $17 billion deal that would allow vets to receive outside care, add staff and improve facilities.
The legislation would give the VA secretary the ability to fire officials who are underperforming or mismanaging. They will immediately lose their salary, but have a week to file an appeal, whereupon a review board will have 21 days to reverse or uphold the termination.
The bill also improves delivery of care for veterans who experienced sexual trauma while serving, extends support for the spouses of military men and women who died in the line of duty, and expands the post-9/11 G.I. bill that pays for veterans' education.
"This is not the end, this is the beginning. This is a crisis situation, and we've done a good job with dealing with the crisis," said Sanders, who chairs the Senate Veterans' Affairs committee, adding that he hoped the emergency funds would give the new VA secretary time to make necessary changes within the department's culture.
The announcement came after talks stalled, and then nearly collapsed altogether last week when Miller announced a conference committee and Sanders accused him of steamrolling the process.
Miller had sent notification announcing a "formal vote on this proposal" ahead of Thursday's hearing, which Sanders took to mean as an attempt to force through the House's proposal without bipartisan negotiation. Officials in the House countered by saying significant portions of Miller's proposal were pulled verbatim from the Senate's legislation.
Both the House and Senate passed bills back in early June that included expanding the VA Secretary's authority to fire senior officials and make it easier for veterans to seek healthcare outside the VA if they must wait more than 30 days or travel more than 40 miles for care.
But negotiations fell apart over how to pay for the the fixes, as Democrats said it ought to be considered emergency funding without and offset and Republicans demanded cuts elsewhere. More conservative Republicans, meanwhile, said the VA should be more efficient with the funds it already has.
The bill announced Monday would give $10 billion in emergency mandatory funding -- not offset -- to pay for veterans seeking care outside the system. The $5 billion to improve facility capacity and hire more doctors, nurses and staff would be offset from elsewhere in the VA budget, while an additional $1.5 billion of emergency funding would allow the VA to enter into leases at 27 facilities around the country to increase capacity.
"Planes and tanks are cost of war," Sanders said, explaining the decision not to offset much of the bill's cost. "So is taking care of the men and women who use those weapons and fight those battles."
The funding for outside care will sunset in three years, giving the VA time to fix its inefficiencies and give Congress a benchmark for how many veterans will choose to stay in the system.
"The VA always says 90 percent plus of the people in the system are satisfied, well here's a great way to test it," Miller said.