By MATTHEW DALY
WASHINGTON (AP) - 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.
The agreement includes $10 billion in emergency spending to make it easier for veterans who can't get prompt appointments with Veterans Affairs 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 chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees said.
The bill also would expand a scholarship program for veterans to include surviving spouses of military members who died in the line of duty, allow all veterans to qualify for in-state college tuition, and grant the VA secretary authority to immediately fire senior executives, while providing employees with streamlined appeal rights.
The bill "makes certain that we address the immediate crisis of veterans being forced onto long waiting lists for health care," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs panel. The bill also "strengthens the VA so that it will be able to hire the doctors, nurses and medical personnel it needs so we can permanently put an end to the long waiting lists," Sanders said at a news conference with Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., his House counterpart.
Sanders and Miller reached agreement on the plan over the weekend after more than six weeks of sometimes testy talks.
The compromise measure would require the Department of Veterans Affairs 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. The bill would limit the number of veterans who can get outside care by restricting it to those who are enrolled as of Aug. 1.
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.
The deal requires a vote by a conference committee of House and Senate negotiators, and votes in the full House and Senate.
The legislation is intended to reform the Veterans Affairs Department, which has been rocked by reports of patients dying while awaiting VA 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.
Louis Celli, legislative director for the American Legion, the nation's largest veterans group, said the deal would provide crucial help to veterans who have been waiting months or even years for VA health care.
"There is an emergency need to get veterans off the waiting lists. That's what this is all about," Celli said Sunday.
Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the agreement was good news - although several months late.
"It's about time they're doing their jobs," he said of Sanders, Miller and other members of Congress. "You don't get a medal for doing your job."
Veterans waiting two months for medical appointments "don't care about all this back and forth" in Congress, Tarantino said. "That's what should be driving decisions."
An updated audit by the VA this month showed that about 10 percent of veterans seeking medical care at VA hospitals and clinics still have to wait at least 30 days for an appointment. About 46,000 veterans have had to wait at least three months for initial appointments, the report said, and an additional 7,000 veterans who asked for appointments over the past decade never got them.
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson has said the VA is making improvements, but said veterans in many communities still are waiting too long to receive needed care. The VA provides health care to nearly 9 million enrolled veterans.
The House and Senate are set to adjourn at the end of the week until early September, and lawmakers from both parties have said completing a bill on veterans' health care is a top priority.
The Senate is expected to vote this week to confirm former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald as the new VA secretary, replacing Gibson.
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