Bipartisan negotiators said Monday they have agreed on a plan, costing about $17 billion, to fix the veterans’ medical program, yet the compromise bill still needs to be approved by the Senate and the House. As reported in Bloomberg, the deal includes non-VA hospitals and clinics at which veterans could receive care, while also approving leases for 27 new VA facilities. Yet, just four days remain until Congress is scheduled to adjourn for a five-week recess so passage of the agreed upon plan is far from certain.
“I'm embarrassed,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a negotiator on the veterans' bill, told The Washington Post last week when asked about how the plan was progressing. "I'm utterly embarrassed if we leave without doing the VA bill.” He added the delays have been “obscene." Both parties expected a final bill by July 4, after the House and Senate approved separate bills on veterans health care in early June. Brokered by Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the deal clearly took more time than anticipated. According to The Associated Press, a rift appeared at the outset with Sanders and Miller arguing in public.
Meanwhile, it’s been nearly two months since VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned amid widespread accusations of mismanagement. On April 23, CNN reported Dr. Sam Foote, a recently retired physician with the Phoenix VA Health Care system, had provided documents revealing how VA leaders covered up lengthy wait times for veterans wanting care. Later, an internal audit found the VA had, as of May 15, 2014, over six million appointments scheduled across the system with roughly 57,436 veterans waiting for an appointment and another 63,869 who had enrolled but had not been seen over the past 10 years.
Additionally, 13 percent of scheduling staff interviewed by the Department of Veterans Affairs said they had received instructions (from supervisors or others) to enter a different date than the one requested by a veteran in the official appointment system. Eight percent of staff also indicated they had used alternatives to the official wait list. Recently, acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan D. Gibson acknowledged at least 35 veterans died while awaiting care in Phoenix.
While both parties claim passage of the bill needs to happen before recess, several key issues remain unresolved, including President Obama's request for emergency funding to manage the swollen number of immigrants illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. While Republicans and Democrats told Bloomberg they agreed on most policy changes, financing remains the issue of contention, with politicians on both sides of the aisle saying they worry leaving without resolving veterans’ medical concerns might spark voter outrage.