Just a few days before Congress breaks for a five week recess, lawmakers have finally reached a deal on a legislative package intended to reform a veterans health program that has been plagued with controversy for months. House and Senate negotiators say that the proposed reforms will help eliminate the backlog of veterans who have been forced to wait too long to receive medical care.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) will unveil the legislation at a news conference on Monday afternoon. The Associated Press reports that their plan is expected to “authorize billions in emergency spending to lease 27 new clinics, hire more doctors and nurses and make it easier for veterans who can’t get prompt appointments with VA doctors to obtain outside care.” The new legislation will also prohibit metrics related to scheduling and wait times to be used as factors in rating VA employees’ performance. Those policies are in line with several of the recommendations that veterans advocates have been calling for since the scandal first broke this past spring.
The Veterans Health Administration made national headlines in May after reports revealed widespread mismanagement and excessive delays in treatment. At least 40 veterans died as a result of being forced to wait too long for medical services, and evidence emerged that VA officials were deliberately attempting to cover up the ongoing issues. Although veterans have historically enjoyed the care they receive through the VA, the serious issues with access led to calls for reform from both sides of the aisle.
Nonetheless, the negotiations dragged on for months, and appeared to be stalled over disputes over how much funding the VA overhaul would require. Lawmakers were under pressure to get something done before the impending August recess, but as recently as last week, they didn’t appear to be getting anywhere fast. However, Sanders and Miller said in a joint statement that they made “made significant progress” over the weekend.
Veterans groups are celebrating the news of a tentative deal, but not everyone is impressed by how long it took to pull something together. “It’s about time they’re doing their jobs. You don’t get a medal for doing your job,” Tom Tarantino, the chief policy officer of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in reference to the lawmakers working on this issue. Similarly, a recent survey of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans found that nearly 70 percent of them don’t think Congress has done a good job of working to improve vets’ lives.
The legislation will need to be approved by the full House and Senate this week before heading to President Obama’s desk. But depending how much it costs, it might be difficult for the bill to win over the support of House Republicans, who have expressed concerns about increasing costs for a government-run program. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the cost of one policy intended to address long wait times — allowing veterans to seek care from private health care providers if they’re facing an unreasonable wait time or live more than 40 miles away from a VA provider — could reach $50 billion per year.