The House and Senate Committees on Veterans Affairs have reached a tentative deal to reform the VA, according to several reports late Sunday.
According to Politico, which quoted an unidentified aide, the chairmen of both committees, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) and Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FLa.) came to an agreement that will address “both the short-term and long-term needs of the VA.”
A deal seemed implausible as recently as late last week, with Miller and Sanders disagreeing about several items. “Most notably,” the Wall Street Journal says, was “the amount of funding to be included in the bill.”
But with Congress about to break for its usual August recess, Sanders and Miller worked through the weekend to find common ground on a reform package. It’s not yet clear just how they resolved their differences, which according to the WSJ were sizable:
One primary disagreement stemmed from the aspect of the bills that would provide an injection of funding to the VA to make other immediate fixes at the department, including expanding allowances for veterans to receive care from non-VA doctors. Mr. Miller said last Thursday he was willing to provide $10 billion, while Mr. Sanders said he wanted the bill to authorize as much as $25 billion.
According to a joint statement, a press conference is set for Monday, following a weekend of negotiations in which Sanders and Miller “made significant progress on legislation to make the VA more accountable and recruit more doctors, nurses and other health care professionals.”
The negotiations come after a scandal over widespread issues with veterans healthcare engulfed the VA earlier this year, costing then-Secretary Eric Shinseki his job.
Bob McDonald, a former chief executive of Procter & Gamble, was nominated by President Barack Obama last month to become Shinseki’s permanent replacement at the VA.
Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson seemingly complicated the deal-making process last week when, while speaking at a House hearing, he reported that the VA would require close to $18 billion for additional hiring in the next three years that would adequately meet the need for reform. The Los Angeles Times points to a growing need for taking care of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars “and the widening of Vietnam War-era Agent Orange claims.”
In order to deal with this problem, the reform bill includes a provision allowing veterans to get access to private care if the VA system proves unreliable. But the Congressional Budget Office assessed the costs at higher-than-expected levels, with a wide disparity between the Senate and House bills.
While the specifics were unavailable Sunday evening, Politico says that
any legislation would likely give the VA secretary a broader ability to fire senior officials accused of mismanagement. The deal is also expected to allocate money for veterans who have been awaiting medical treatment for longer than 30 days the ability to leave the VA system for care.
Now that a VA reform deal has been reached, the compromise bill will go before the full House and Senate for a final vote. But given the looming August recess, the chambers only have until Friday to pass it and move forward sooner rather than later.