House-Senate negotiators approve $17B VA bill

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House-Senate negotiators approve $17B VA bill
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, accompanied by House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, July 28, 2014, to outline their agreement on a compromise plan to fix the vast health care system responsible for treating the nation's veterans. A bipartisan deal to improve veterans' health care would authorize at least $17 billion to fix the health program scandalized by long patient wait times and falsified records covering up delays, the bill's chief supporters said Monday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., right and House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., take the stairs to a news conference on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Monday, July 28, 2014, about a bipartisan deal to improve veterans' health care that would authorize at least $17 billion to fix the health program scandalized by long patient wait times and falsified records covering up delays. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, followed by Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., emerges from Republican caucus meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 10, 2014. Responding to the public outcry over lax care at Veterans Affairs health facilities, leaders of both parties plan debate soon on a bill to help vets waiting for months to get medical appointments. The House of Representatives advanced a VA reform bill today that passed 421-0. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. pauses while speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 10, 2014, after a Democratic caucus lunch. Responding to the public outcry over lax care at Veterans Affairs health facilities, leaders of both parties plan debate soon on a bill to help vets waiting for months to get medical appointments. The House of Representatives advanced a VA reform bill today that passed 421-0. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 10, 2014, after a Democratic caucus lunch. Responding to the public outcry over lax care at Veterans Affairs health facilities, leaders of both parties plan debate soon on a bill to help vets waiting for months to get medical appointments. The House of Representatives advanced a VA reform bill today that passed 421-0. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
From left: Harry C. Taylor II, Administrative Law Judge, Charleston, W.Va., Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, Social Security Administration; Charles Bridges, Administrative Law Judge, Harrisburg, Pa., Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, Social Security Administration; Gerald I. Krafsur, Administrative Law Judge, Kingsport, Tenn., Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, Social Security Administration; James A. Burke, Administrative Law Judge, Albuquerque, N.M., Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, Social Security Administration; are sworn in on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 10, 2014, prior to testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform hearing regarding social security and disability benefits. Four Social Security judges are facing accusations they rubber-stamped claims for disability benefits, approving billions of dollars in payments from the cash-strapped program. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Harry C. Taylor II, Administrative Law Judge, Charleston, W.Va., Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, Social Security Administration testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 10, 2014, before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing regarding social security and disability benefits. Four Social Security judges are facing accusations they rubber-stamped claims for disability benefits, approving billions of dollars in payments from the cash-strapped program. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
From left: James A. Burke, Administrative Law Judge, Albuquerque, N.M., Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, Social Security Administration; Harry C. Taylor II, Administrative Law Judge, Charleston, W.Va., Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, Social Security Administration; Gerald I. Krafsur, Administrative Law Judge, Kingsport, Tenn., Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, Social Security Administration; Charles Bridges, Administrative Law Judge, Harrisburg, Pa., Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, Social Security Administration; testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 10, 2014, before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing regarding social security and disability benefits. Four Social Security judges are facing accusations they rubber-stamped claims for disability benefits, approving billions of dollars in payments from the cash-strapped program. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, shakes hands with House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, July 28, 2014, during a news conference as they outlined their agreement on a compromise plan to fix the vast health care system responsible for treating the nation's veterans. A bipartisan deal to improve veterans' health care would authorize at least $17 billion to fix the health program scandalized by long patient wait times and falsified records covering up delays, the bill's chief supporters said Monday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., leaves a Republican caucus meeting, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, July 25, 2014, on the influx of illegal immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. With Congress scheduled to recess in a week, Miller and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, have offered competing proposals to fix the veterans' health care program that has been scandalized by long patient wait times and falsified records covering up the delays. (AP Photo)
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, joined by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., right, calls on a reporters during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 24, 2014, on the Veterans Administration. The chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees offered competing new proposals to fix a veterans health care program scandalized by long waits and falsified records covering up the delays. (AP Photo)
Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, talks with reporters about the border crisis, veterans' health care, and future funding, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 24, 2014. House Republicans and Senate Democrats are at an impasse on dealing with tens of thousands of young migrants showing up at the southern border, leaving any solution unclear with Congress' annual August recess looming. (AP Photo)
Department of Veterans Affairs acting secretary Sloan Gibson pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 24, 2014, before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee to outline his actions for restoring trust to the beleaguered agency. (AP Photo)
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., holds up two pages of resource requests from the Department of Veterans Affairs on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 24, 2014, as he questions Department of Veterans Affairs acting secretary Sloan Gibson on how to restore trust to the beleaguered agency. (AP Photo)
Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson, left, accompanied by Assistant Deputy Undersecretary For Health For Administrative Operations Philip Matkowsky, pauses while testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 16, 2014, before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing on the state of VA health care in the wake of revelations of neglect and delayed medical visits. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson, foreground, answers reporters' questions about improvements within the medical care system during a visit to the G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery VA Medical Center in Jackson, Miss., Friday, July 11, 2014. During the visit, Gibson met with the medical center's staff and some veterans. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner testifies before a House Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 8, 2014. A federal investigative agency is examining 67 claims of retaliation by supervisors at the Department of Veterans Affairs against employees who filed whistleblower complaints--including 25 complaints filed since June 1, after a growing health care scandal involving long patient waits and falsified records at VA hospitals and clinics became public. The independent Office of Special Counsel said 30 of the complaints about retaliation have passed the initial review stage and were being further investigated for corrective action and possible discipline against VA supervisors and other executives. The complaints were filed in 28 states at 45 separate facilities, Lerner said. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Katherine Mitchell, M.D., medical director, Iraq and Afghanistan Post-Deployment Center, Phoenix VA Health Care System, left, looks on as Scott Davis, program specialist, VA National Health Eligibility Center, testifies before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing on the Department of Veteran Affairs supplying inadequate services, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 8, 2014. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner is sworn in prior to testifying before a House Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 8, 2014. A federal investigative agency is examining 67 claims of retaliation by supervisors at the Department of Veterans Affairs against employees who filed whistleblower complaints--including 25 complaints filed since June 1, after a growing health care scandal involving long patient waits and falsified records at VA hospitals and clinics became public. The independent Office of Special Counsel said 30 of the complaints about retaliation have passed the initial review stage and were being further investigated for corrective action and possible discipline against VA supervisors and other executives. The complaints were filed in 28 states at 45 separate facilities, Lerner said. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Men sit outside the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center in Albuquerque, N.M., Thursday, July 3, 2014. A veteran who collapsed in an Albuquerque Veteran Affairs hospital cafeteria 500 yards from the emergency room, died Monday, June 30, 2014, after waiting 30 minutes for an ambulance, officials confirmed Thursday. Officials at the hospital said it took a half an hour for the ambulance to be dispatched and take the man from one building to the other, which is about a five minute walk. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras)
The entrance to the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center in Albuquerque, N.M., is seen Thursday, July 3, 2014. A veteran who collapsed in an Albuquerque Veteran Affairs hospital cafeteria 500 yards from the emergency room, died Monday, June 30, 2014, after waiting 30 minutes for an ambulance, officials confirmed Thursday. Officials at the hospital said it took a half an hour for the ambulance to be dispatched and take the man from one building to the other, which is about a five minute walk. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras)
House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., left, shakes hands with Katherine Mitchell, M.D., medical director, Iraq and Afghanistan Post-Deployment Center, Phoenix VA Health Care System, right, as witnesses Jose Mathews, M.D., former chief of psychiatry, St. Louis VA Health Care System; Christian Head, M.D., associate director, chief of staff, Legal and Quality Assurance, Greater Los Angeles VA Health Care System, look on at the start of the committee's hearing on the Department of Veteran Affairs supplying inadequate services, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 8, 2014. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
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By MATTHEW DALY

WASHINGTON (AP) - House and Senate negotiators have approved a $17 billion compromise bill to overhaul the Department of Veterans Affairs and reform a program scandalized by veterans' long waits for health care and VA workers falsifying records to cover up delays.

The vote by the 28-member conference committee late Monday sends the bill to the full House and Senate, where approval is expected later this week. The bill is intended to help veterans avoid long waits for health care, hire more doctors and nurses to treat them, and make it easier to fire executives at the VA.

The measure includes $10 billion in emergency spending to help veterans who can't get prompt appointments with VA doctors to obtain outside care; $5 billion to hire doctors, nurses and other medical staff; and about $1.5 billion to lease 27 new clinics across the country.

The action comes as the Senate is set to vote Tuesday to confirm former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald as the new VA secretary, replacing Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson.

Lawmakers hope to send the VA reform bill to the president later this week.

Florida Rep. Jeff Miller, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who chairs the Senate panel, say the bill will require about $12 billion in new spending after accounting for about $5 billion in unspecified spending cuts from the VA's budget.

Despite the steep cost, Miller said he is confident he can sell the bill to fellow Republicans, including tea party members.

"Taking care of our veterans is not an inexpensive proposition, and our members understand that," Miller said Monday. "The VA has caused this problem and one of the ways that we can help solve it is to give veterans a choice, a choice to stay in the system or a choice to go out of the system" to get government-paid health care from a private doctor.

Pressed on the point by reporters, Miller said there will be "an educational process that will have to take place" before the House votes on the compromise plan later this week. "Obviously some of our members will need a little more educating than others."

Rep. Tim Huelskamp., R-Kan., a tea party favorite and a member of the House veterans panel, said "throwing money at the VA won't solve their problem," adding that "a fundamental change in culture and real leadership from the president on down is the only way to provide the quality, timely care our veterans deserve."

Sanders, for his part, said funding for veterans should be considered as a cost of war, paid for through emergency spending.

"Planes and tanks and guns are a cost of war. So is taking care of the men and women who fight our battles," he said.

Miller and Sanders both predicted passage of the bill by the end of the week, when Congress is set to leave town for a five-week recess.

If approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama, the veterans' bill would be one of the few significant bills signed into law this year.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama welcomes the bipartisan deal as "much-needed reforms that need to be implemented."

The White House is especially pleased that the bill includes emergency spending "to provide VA the additional resources necessary to deliver timely, high-quality care to veterans through a strengthened VA system," Earnest said.

The VA has been rocked by reports of patients dying while awaiting treatment and mounting evidence that workers falsified or omitted appointment schedules to mask frequent, long delays. The resulting election-year firestorm forced VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign in late May.

The compromise measure would require the VA to pay private doctors to treat qualifying veterans who can't get prompt appointments at the VA's nearly 1,000 hospitals and outpatient clinics, or those who live at least 40 miles from one of them. Only veterans who are enrolled in VA care as of Aug. 1 or live at least 40 miles away would be eligible to get outside care.

The proposed restrictions are important in controlling costs for the program. Congressional budget analysts had projected that tens of thousands of veterans who currently are not treated by the VA would likely seek VA care if they could see a private doctor paid for by the government.

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