The leaders of the conference committee established to merge House and Senate bills to reform the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department
have agreed to give $17 billion to the beleaguered federal agency to turn things around.
Of those funds, $12 billion is new spending and $5 billion will be offset though savings within the current VA budget, Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said at a news conference Monday.
“Funding for veterans needs must be considered a cost of war,” Sanders said.
The bill gives the VA secretary the ability to immediately fire employees. The terminated individual could appeal and get a ruling within 21 days. The person would be placed on unpaid leave pending the outcome.
The bill also provides funds for hiring additional medical personnel, and for leasing 27 new VA medical facilities. Veterans waiting for an appointment for more than 30 days or who live 40 miles or more from a VA facility could seek care from private providers.
The bill also allows those now getting care under a pilot initiative known as Project ARCH (Access Received Closer to Home), to stay in the program an additional two years. The initiative was expected to end at the end of August. Launched in 2011 in five pilot sites, the program provides access to private providers for veterans who live far from VA facilities.
The entire conference committee was expected to sign off on the compromise Monday, which would give both the House and Senate enough time to vote and send a bill to the president before summer recess begins August 1. The House adjourns on Thursday for the August recess and the Senate leaves town on Friday.
Miller said the compromise has support from House leadership is likely to pass even though it's not likely to win the unanimous support that the lower chamber's own version had a few weeks ago.
Addressing concerns that allowing more veterans to get private care could undermine the less expensive VA system, Miller said he doubted there would be a mass exodus from the department's facilities. “But we don't know until we start the program,” Miller said. “And this year is going to give us a good benchmark on which to set the future of the system.”
Response to the effort from veterans groups has been mixed.
“While no veteran should be forced to wait too long or travel too far to get their care, we remain concerned that simply giving veterans plastic cards and wishing them good luck in the private sector is not a substitute for a coordinated system of care,” Garry Augustine, executive director of Disabled American Veterans, said in a statement.
“The VA must remain fully responsible for ensuring the best health outcomes for veterans not only by purchasing such care when VA is unable to provide it directly, but also by coordinating the delivery of non-VA care, including all follow up necessary,” Augustine added.Follow Virgil Dickson on Twitter: @MHvdickson