WASHINGTON – Senior senators reached an agreement Thursday on the framework for a bipartisan bill expanding veterans’ ability to get health care outside the government’s scandal-beset Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics.
The bill would allow veterans who experience waits of 30 days or more for VA appointments or who live at least 40 miles from a VA hospital or clinic to use private doctors enrolled as providers for Medicare, military TRICARE or other government health care programs.
It also would let the VA immediately fire as many as 450 senior regional executives and hospital administrators for poor performance. The bill resembles a measure passed last month by the House but includes a 28-day appeal process omitted by the House legislation.
The Senate deal came as acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson announced that 18 veterans who were kept off official VA waiting lists in the Phoenix area have died. Gibson said he does not know whether the deaths were related to long waiting times to see a VA doctor.
The 18 veterans who died were among 1,700 veterans identified in a federal report as being kept off an electronic waiting list of scheduled appointments, Gibson said. Taking care of those 1,700 veterans is his top priority as VA chief, Gibson said during a tour of VA facilities in Phoenix, where the furor started.
The Senate bill is a response to a building national uproar over veterans’ health care following allegations that surfaced in April that as many as 40 veterans may have died while waiting an average 115 days for appointments at the Phoenix VA hospital or its walk-in clinics.
Since then, investigators have found long wait times and falsified records covering them up at other VA facilities nationwide.
“Right now we have a crisis on our hands and it’s imperative that we deal with that crisis,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
Sanders and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., announced the agreement Thursday following two days of intense negotiations. Both had introduced competing versions earlier in the week.
McCain said the bill was “a way to help to relieve this terrible tragedy that has befallen our nation’s veterans.”
The bill also authorizes the VA to lease 26 new health facilities in 18 states and spend $500 million to hire more doctors and nurses. The VA now has 150 hospitals and 820 clinics nationwide. Senate leaders said they hoped to bring the legislation to the floor soon but offered no specifics.